It is apt that this research article discusses and analyses the unprecedented political situation Sri Lanka is facing at the moment. This research article can be categorised into the field of academic political science and political analysis. An unprecedented economic crisis has shaken Sri Lanka with the price of essential goods and fuel rising rapidly and power outages continuing throughout the country. On 21 July 2022, Ranil Wickremesinghe formally became President of Sri Lanka. The political situation and crisis is evolving constantly and each day brings a new angle and dimension to it. This research article analyzes three areas pertaining to the current political situation in Sri Lanka: its economic dimension, the people’s protests, and the Wickremesinghe Presidency.
Economic dimension: The Financial crisis as a catalyst for a political crisis
The Covid-19 pandemic struck Sri Lanka in 2019 denting Sri Lanka’s economic fortunes. The pandemic stalled tourism and generated a series of lockdowns which severely affected the Sri Lankan economy. This dramatically reduced Sri Lanka’s foreign exchange reserves. This made it difficult for the nation to stay afloat and manage its economy. Coupled with this problem was the country’s foreign debt problem which had been in the making for a couple of decades at least. Sri Lanka has engaged in unsustainable debt practices, from commercial lenders to bilateral partners such as China and India at commercial rates as well as purchasing international sovereign bonds in bulk. It is unclear to the ordinary citizens how this debt is going to be serviced.
The above indicators point to an extremely grim and grave economic crisis for Sri Lanka. Sri Lanka’s USD 81 billion economy is under severe pressure. Unemployment, in particular youth unemployment, is at a record high. Overall economic growth is low and inflation has reached unmanageable levels, never before witnessed in Sri Lankan history. This results in increasing prices of essential food and medicines. The Wickremesinghe Government has attempted to contain the situation by borrowing necessary money and other materials from willing countries such as India and instituting negotiations with the IMF over a restructuring programme for Sri Lanka with financial assistance from the IMF.
Consumer prices in Sri Lanka rose nearly 19 per cent in March 2022, from a year earlier. This is the highest rate for Asia, after a 15 per cent jump in February 2022 and food inflation exceeded 90 per cent by the end of July 2022. This dire economic crisis, unprecedented in the nation’s history, has triggered a feeling of anger and resentment among the electorate. The people of Sri Lanka appear frustrated and agitated, facing significant financial difficulties. These frustrations are directed at the ruling government. However, it is too simplistic to place the blame on any single politician or government. Politicians come and go and are humans. No political leader or government is a magician and expecting the politicians of Sri Lanka to resolve this crisis appears to not be a good strategy. The solution to this crisis must involve all stakeholders and not simply the ruling government- civil society, economic experts and the citizenry of all ages, ethnicities and religious backgrounds must come together in the interests of correcting Sri Lanka’s economic trajectory.
Protests – The people spill-over into the streets
Sri Lankans are finding themselves in increasingly difficult living and social conditions. Since the start of March 2022, Sri Lankan homes and companies have experienced daily power cuts which have been highly grueling and have had a significant impact on productivity and efficiency. There has also been a petrol/fuel shortage which continues even at present, with long lines of people queuing up outside petrol stations to acquire a supply of fuel.
The street protests that have developed in Sri Lanka during the past few months have now subsided. However, it is important to analyse them as there is a very strong likelihood that such street protests may resume if the economic and political situation does not improve. These street protests have three broad dimensions. First, it is important to understand that the bulk of the protestors comprise the youth. These youth, many of whom are struggling with unemployment and their future hopes and aspirations being dashed by the impact of the crisis, are demanding immediate answers to their predicament in anger. The current political situation is therefore, highly volatile and dangerous, with the possibility of increasing bloody clashes between protestors and the security forces.
The second dimension is the media. Media coverage and portrayal of the waves of protests in Sri Lanka have been largely sympathetic to the protestors. Most media (both local and international) have supported the protest movement by granting it widespread coverage and turning it into a global phenomenon. In fact Sri Lanka is now becoming a focal point throughout the world for protest movements fuelled largely by economic issues.
The third dimension is the Wickremsinghe presidency. Ranil Wickremesinghe may have attained his dream of becoming President of Sri Lanka and of course congratulations are in order. However, a word of caution is also in order. First, President Wickremesinghe inherits an almost impossible job at an impossible time. His core focus must be the correction of the Sri Lankan economic mess- focusing in particular on eliminating fuel shortages, curtailing inflation and introducing an immediate and sensible plan to restructure Sri Lanka’s international debt. If he does this and manages this equilibrium cleverly, he has an opportunity to go down in Sri Lanka history as a very successful leader at a time of urgent national need.
In lieu of a conclusion
In conclusion, the political situation in Sri Lanka in August 2022 is very concerning indeed. In a nutshell the scenario can be summarised as an economic calamity coupled with acute political disorder and division. There is no clear answer to these difficult questions and each minute the crisis evolves. Whatever happens in the end, it is clear that every single citizen of Sri Lanka will be grappling with very difficult political questions throughout the days, weeks, and months to come.
The writer can be contacted at [email protected]
BY Sachin Parathalingam