Ranil on economic crisis: ‘The worst is yet to come’

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The worst is yet to come, as hyperinflation has not yet affected Sri Lanka and the present crisis could escalate into one where people will be unable to afford even two meals per day, UNP Leader Ranil Wickremesinghe said, adding that there is no purpose in crying over spilt milk but Parliament should investigate who is responsible for the present catastrophe.

Wickremesinghe expressed these views at an interview, where he focused on the crisis and where the Government has gone wrong.

Following are excerpts of the interview:

If the present trajectory continues, what would Sri Lanka look like in 2025 and what is the best- and worst-case scenario according to you?

A: If the present crisis continues, the economy will start breaking down and recovery will become very difficult. The worst is yet to come, as hyperinflation has not come in yet, but the best scenario would be if this could be addressed now, as such move would stabilise the situation by 2023 and get the economy moving, while restructuring the economy.

The worst-case scenario is that some believe the crisis would last for more than two years and the longer it takes, there would be an increase in the number of enterprises and companies collapsing and if the number of those unemployed and those starving and dying increases, it will go more out of control and will take a longer time to settle.

Public protests are based on economic hardship, but political parties including you are eyeing for structural changes in governance coupled with constitutional amendments. How would abolishing the Executive Presidency or replacing the 20th Amendment with the 21st Amendment solve the cost of living issue?

A: The primary focus of the Government in light of overcoming the present crisis has been to repeal the 20th Amendment and to bring the 21st Amendment and although I am personally against the 20th Amendment, this is not the solution to the economic crisis that has got the worst of the public, resulting in job losses and business breakdowns. Thereby, the focus should be on overcoming the economic crisis as opposed to only bringing about constitutional amendments.

There is a growing demand that you should take some responsibility to get Sri Lanka out of this mess, taking into consideration your leadership and management skills. If a majority of Parliament agree to appoint you as PM to lead the Interim Government, are you ready to take up the same?

A: Sri Lanka has now come to the level of putting advertisements for wanted Prime Minister and those in the Opposition are of the view that the President and Prime Minister should leave, so until then or unless there is an agreement between the Opposition and the Government as to how it has to be handled, I can’t see the Opposition coming into any form of Government.

There are really three positions, two Rajapaksas must go, two Rajapaksas must stay, or another situation within the SLPP would be for President Rajapaksa to stay, but for Prime Minister Rajapaksa to go and that situation is being resolved within the SLPP, but that should be discussed.

The Bar Association of Sri Lanka (BASL) and lawyers and other professionals have put forward a resolution and thereby discussions should be held to find some common ground.

If you were in the Government, how would you resolve the ongoing protests? Would you use Police force or would you obtain Court Orders or would you rather negotiate with them?

A: If I was in the Government, the protests would not have taken place, because I would have ensured that the economy functions well.

Was the present crisis predicted by the UNP?

A: We predicted the present situation in 2020 and the UNP Manifesto was in regard to the fact that we needed US$ 7 billion for 2021 and 2022 and that we have to go to the IMF and seek the support of friendly countries. Again, when I got into Parliament in 2021, I mentioned it and I brought it up again during the Budget debate in 2021 and it is on record.

Will the UNP vote in favour of the No-Confidence Motion (NCM)?

A: We have already informed that we would support the NCM of the TNA against the President which was handed over to SJB and we are not against bringing a NCM against the Government, but we have told to discuss the steps to be taken.

Some have called for an election, while several have voiced that this could not be done, what is your view?

A: We cannot go for an election right now as the economy is getting really bad and we have to stabilise the economy and secondly the cost of running the election last time was over Rs 10 billion and this would double for the Government if an election is to be held now. How can we spend Rs 20 billion to Rs 25 billion in a situation where people are not even able to afford their meals?.

There will be over 266 candidates and their expenditure would be up to Rs 30, 40 billion, so could we afford to spend Rs 60 to Rs 65 billion and we get this expenditure as donations, but I do not think private enterprises or people have the money, so it is impossible to hold an election right now.

Protesters have demanded for the entire Parliament to step down, is that possible and practical?

A: I was sent home and I have returned, I do not know about the others. If all Parliamentarians are sent home, they will assign the 29 National List MPs and as far as the other 196 are concerned, there are other names on the list, immediately when someone resigns, the next name comes up automatically and thereby we will have to exhaust that list also.

The frustration that people feel is that the Parliament is not engaging in the situation and they question as to why they would not step down if they can’t find solutions. We have to acknowledge the situation, but the constitutional and legal issue is if the MPs step down, they can always be replaced.

With IMF denying the Rapid Financing Instrument (RFI), Sri Lanka now finds it difficult to face the economic crisis, while China also opposes Sri Lanka seeking IMF help. Do you see the Sri Lankan economic issue becoming a geopolitical issue as well and if so, how should Sri Lanka manage the situation?

A: It can be a geopolitical issue as well, there is certainly a 50 per cent chance of it becoming a geopolitical issue. This Government has succeeded in annoying every country, no one in the world has annoyed America, India, China and Japan at the same time. This is a Guinness World Record and they must now work their way out.

I am happy that the President has given the Colombo Light Rail Transit (LRT) project back to Japan, but that is not the only issue. There are several other outstanding issues and we should also take a decision on, including GSP, because we have to sort it out with the Human Rights Commission in Geneva.

Should development activities continue at this juncture?

A: We have done enough development, but we should now feed people and if there is no relief budget, people would increasingly come to the streets and there would be no need for more development.

Do you believe that President Gotabaya Rajapaksa should resign or remain in office?

A: All in the Opposition are of the view that both should step down, but we are deadlocked with the Government, which says both should stay, so how do we resolve this? That is what we are discussing among ourselves. I think it is easier to resolve some of the economic issues and that is why we are asking to put emphasis first to get that part moving.

On the basis that is not an end itself, a political solution should also be arrived at as the Government is responsible, President is personally responsible for tax cuts and halting chemical fertiliser imports and several other reasons that the Opposition and public have been raising.

Did you delay the No-Confidence Motion (NCM)?

A: If the NCM was moved, the IMF would have stopped discussions with the Minister of Finance whether it was passed or not and anyway that Parliamentary week we could not take up the NCM, it could have only been submitted this week. It was not ready, it was only handed over this week, so I did not delay it in any way except we all agreed and the SJB has not complained.

What difference can we expect if a new Prime Minister replaces Mahinda Rajapaksa?

A: We don’t know. We must see who the new Prime Minister is and what coalition is brought in.

What changes can we expect under an Interim Government?

A: There is no provision for an Interim Government in the Constitution. When this Government goes out, another Government comes in. You can have a caretaker government when the Parliament is dissolved because Cabinet must be responsible to Parliament. So, what they are saying is to change the composition of the Government from this system of having majority party to one with the involvement of many parties in the Government and in resolving the economic issues, so it is there that the issue has come up.

If the Government wants that type of activity, they have to compromise with the Opposition and they can’t have the cake and eat it.

What are your proposals for economic recovery?

A: A sustainable debt level should be maintained first, banks should be protected, relief should be given to the people, they should make up with the foreign countries and get a consortium to help us out, prepare for the next rising inflation, as this is the local inflation and we can get hit by the inflation caused by the Ukraine war.

Hyperinflation and this will connect and there will be a food shortage. It has not still hit us, that means high prices for food and people will not be able to afford even two meals.

Then we have to focus on restructuring where we should have a highly competitive, export-oriented economy. It is on those principles that I have asked Parliament to take it over and for the Parliament to take over public finance. Inside the Chamber, there is a lot of competition and everyone shouts at each other, in addition to that I figured that we should have a policy framework that goes on for at least 20 years. So far, we are the only party that has produced an action plan.

The behaviour of MPs in Parliament is concerning. Care to comment?

A: I regret this type of behaviour because there are a lot of members who don’t behave in such a manner. This type of behaviour has tarnished the reputation of Parliament and especially in the middle of a crisis when MPs behave in such a manner, it prompts the public to demand that all 225 leave.

We have to change the culture in Parliament. That would take some time, but we should come up with a code of conduct in the House, outside the House and take action to maintain order in Parliament.

What do you have to say to the protesters at Galle Face?

A: It is a symbol of the frustration of the people and everyone is getting involved. There is also another symbol, that is the protests that are taking place outside. The Galle Face protest is very peaceful and the Government should listen to them and resolve it and not allow more violent protests to take place out of extreme frustration.

What is your opinion on the investigations of the Easter Sunday Attacks and the implementation of the recommendations of the Presidential Commission appointed to investigate the attack?

A: The manner in which the PCoI has conducted investigations is questionable. Don’t ask me about the implementation of the recommendations of the PCoI, ask the present Government, I have nothing to do with that.

(Pix by Amitha Tennakoon)

By Faadhila Thassim