Replete with hindrances
The 21st Constitutional amendment devolves greater power upon the Parliament but its amorphous composition allows little headroom to the Sri Lankan PM; writes Gautam Sen
Sri Lanka still remains in the throes of political and economic turmoil. The 21st Amendment to its Constitution has been approved by the presidential cabinet on June 20 this year for presenting to its Parliament. The Amendment will annul the 20th Amendment which instituted the executive presidency after the last presidential elections of 2019, and reduce the power of the executive president. But a consensus among the political parties — including a section of the dominant Sri Podujana Peramuna (SLPP) — is that the Amendment alone will not solve the present national economic crisis.
Furthermore, the Amendment, to be purposeful and effective at this juncture, should have been in a context where the Prime Minister and his cabinet were able to invoke the enhanced powers devolved to Parliament from the executive presidency. This is not the situation presently. Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe is not backed by a single-party majority, or even a coalition-based majority, in the Parliament. Premier Wickremesinghe will therefore be under some sort of a dualism with a Parliament of amorphous political hue and, at the same time, susceptible to the maneuverings and threats by different political combines and even the president of the Rajapaksa family. It needs to be noted that president Gotabaya Rajapaksa, whose policies are at the root of the present malaise, has steadfastly refused to step down from the presidency, despite persistent public demand across the country to relinquish office and order new elections for president's post and the parliament.
While the decentralisation of political power is being undertaken, the economic crisis looms pervasively across the country. The agricultural scenario is a matter of serious concern. Aftereffects of a poor agricultural output, deliberately brought about by the misguided policies of recently-deposed premier Mahinda Rajapaksa who switched over to nutrients and ingredients not tried out before, remains. Fuel shortage is still at a critical level, with 'work from home' for Sri Lankans introduced in the government and private sectors to avoid fuel consumption on motorised and public transport. The pumps for agricultural needs cannot run due to diesel shortage. The operating of thermal power plants and fuel refineries like at Sapugaskanda and Kolonnawa of Ceylon Petroleum Corporation are also affected because of scarcity of fuel. Premier Wickremesinghe will have to use all his tact and experience to import a bare minimum level of fuel for power plants, transport and agricultural pumps, preferably on concessionally credit terms.
It may not be possible for the premier to take advantage of the 21st Amendment because of his political weakness and the prevailing circumstances. However, his inter se position vis-a-vis the president will be strengthened. Premier Wickremesinghe's political skills in making the best of the 21st Amendment will be the essence. The political inclination of the premier as per past experience is that he is Western and free-market oriented. He is banking heavily on a substantial IMF bailout package to bring in much needed liquidity in the economy. India has already provided a significant line of credit of more than a billion dollars to enable procurement of fuel, medicines and a few other essentials which the premier has gratefully acknowledged.
The present crisis will take some time to subside, provided the basic nature of Sri Lanka's economy is not distorted. Infusing foreign capital artificially in pockets of Sri Lanka with the economic activities by the foreign capital left in dominant foreign hands like in the Colombo port city, will spell doom for the economy, pauperize the local people, pass on interventionist control to foreign investors and create an unmanageable debt burden for Colombo. This is what has actually happened with the huge Chinese investments that have created an unviable economic burden for Sri Lanka. IMF credit should also be utilised for the purchase of essential public goods and strengthening of the country's agricultural sector — through water supply, irrigation facilities, high-yielding seeds and, above all, more remuneration to its agriculturists. Another critical area is the strengthening of the free trade zones and providing assistance for the country's garment exports, a major foreign exchange earner for Sri Lanka. IMF and bilateral imports and technical support for augmentation of the refining capacity of Sri Lanka is also needed.
The bilateral arrangement under which Sri Lanka has given the management and development of 14 oil tank farms in Trincomalee to Lanka Indian Oil Corporation for operating for 50 years from January 2022 is a very positive measure. Sri Lanka has retained 24 farms for development and operation by Ceylon Petroleum Corporation (CPC), and will operate the remaining 61 tanks as a joint venture. This gives the correct impression of India being a partner in Sri Lanka's progress and not trying to dominate its economy. It is possible that Lanka IOC may be entrusted with a few more oil tank farms in future, depending on its performance in respect of 14 farms already under its operation. Both India and Sri Lanka should also explore developing refining capacities in the vicinity of Trincomalee.
The Sri Lankan crisis cannot be resolved without an internal political consensus. The consensus has to necessarily encompass economic management also. A positive attribute of the 21st Amendment is the strengthening of the autonomy of the independent commissions including the audit infrastructure. This is a welcome development, provided the Sri Lankan political parties and major politicians promote the new institutional changes. A lacuna in the 21st Amendment is that, in times when, say, the president resigns or the Parliament is not able to function or develop a political consensus behind a leader, there should be some arrangement for a functionary like the speaker of the Parliament or the head of a Constitutional commission to take charge for a defined period and order the holding of presidential or parliamentary elections compulsorily. This will avert a constitutional crisis and engender public confidence in the state.
The writer is a senior civil service officer, who has served as the first secretary in Indian High Commission at Colombo. Views expressed are personal