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Conundrum Of Elections & IMF Programme

Tracing history and going back to the colonial era, President Ranil Wickremesinghe has said that despite the adverse impact of world wars and internal conflicts, Sri Lanka has steadfastly upheld its democratic value of ensuring the functioning of both the government and the opposition without interruption. The president was addressing members of the student parliament and said they might find it worthwhile to explore ways and means of sustaining this system. By way of contrast, Sri Lanka’s neighbouring countries have put their opposition parties under siege, closing down their bank accounts, imprisoning their leaders and intimidating them so much that they do not even contest the elections, though the president was too diplomatic to make these points.

In Sri Lanka, on the other hand, the opposition parties are rising in the popular estimation with the government’s popularity in the single digits, if public opinion polls are to be believed. The most visible and real symbol of a functioning democracy is its polity’s commitment to free and fair elections. There is eager anticipation of elections in Sri Lanka with presidential elections constitutionally scheduled to be held at least by October this year. In recent decades, Sri Lanka’s experience in this regard has been a checkered one but with a generally improving trend. Except for the violent election that took place in the Wayamba province in 1999 and boycott call issued by the LTTE with regard to the presidential election in 2005 backed by their guns, which cost Ranil Wickremesinghe his assured victory. Since then, elections in Sri Lanka over the past two decades have been largely free of violence.

However, there have been two areas in particular where Sri Lankan elections need to improve. The first area of improvement is the need to prevent the misuse of state resources by governments in power. The practice has been for governments to misuse the state machinery and state to engage in partisan political propaganda and to provide material resources to the electorate to win them over to their side. Election monitors have time and time again pointed out these flaws in the electoral process but have been unable to prevent them the next time around due to the high level of impunity enjoyed by those who wield governmental power.

Early Elections

The second area where there needs to be improvement is the irregular circumvention of elections by a variety of tactics. In 1972, for instance, the government in power gave itself an additional two years in power by bringing forth a new constitution and giving itself a full five-year term even though two years had elapsed since they won the elections. In 1981, the government held a referendum to postpone elections by six years rather than hold parliamentary elections. More recently in 2018, the government began the process of changing the electoral system pertaining to provincial councils and stopped there, putting the provincial councils into a state of limbo.

Most recently, in 2023, the present government decided to postpone local government elections citing the lack of money in the treasury due to the economic crisis. This has given rise to concern that the forthcoming presidential election due by October this year may suffer a similar fate in one way or the other. Indeed, President Wickremesinghe, various ministers of the government and the election commissioner have gone out of their way to reassure the opposition political parties and civil society that this will not be the case. But there remain concerns that the government’s poor showing in public opinion polls may induce it to find a way to scuttle the elections.

In this context, the president’s recent statement that no elections will be held until the IMF programme is completed has caused speculation to grow regarding the presidential elections. An identical story in several newspapers states that President Ranil Wickremesinghe has informed Cabinet and the Election Commission that there is no chance of holding any election until the economic reforms programme that is being carried out with the International Monetary Fund is concluded. The President has said that the economic reform process done together with the IMF was crucial for the country to progress economically, and therefore, priority should be given to the IMF programme.

The President has also said since the IMF programme is in effect until the end of July, no election will be held till such time. This will put to rest the hopes of those who want early parliamentary elections before the presidential election in the hope of cutting their losses in the event that their candidate does not win the presidential election. President Wickremesinghe has said that the presidential election will not be a hindrance to the IMF programme as the time for holding the presidential election comes constitutionally after the process of the IMF programme. According to the news reports the President has informed the Cabinet as well as the officials of the Election Commission to prepare for the presidential election first. This suggests that there will be no early parliamentary elections as lobbied for by a section within the government. The challenge will be to ensure the implementation of the IMF agreement before the presidential elections are called.

Governance Reforms

There are two aspects to the implementation of the IMF programme. One is to achieve macro-economic targets. On this the government has won plaudits from the IMF team who visited the country two weeks ago. Peter Breuer, the Head of the IMF Senior Mission for Sri Lanka, said that the results achieved by the reform program implemented by Sri Lanka have yielded commendable results including rapid reduction of inflation, strengthening foreign reserves and stability of the financial system and initial signs of economic growth. He also said that Sri Lanka’s public finances have been strengthened following significant fiscal reforms. Economic performance has been strengthened by meeting all quantitative performance criteria and index targets by the end of December 2023, except for the index target of social expenditure.

However, the government has not performed well with regard to the second aspect of the IMF programme which calls on it to address governance weaknesses and corruption vulnerabilities. According to the IMF these are critical to put the economy on a path towards lasting recovery and stable and inclusive growth which benefits all in the country and not just a few. The findings of Verite Research that the government failed to meet 33 percent of the commitments due by end of February 2024 in its International Monetary Fund (IMF) programme is disturbing. The status of 36 percent of the commitments are classified as ‘unknown’, which means sufficient data was not made available to assess their progress. By end-February, only 31 percent of the commitments were verifiably ‘met’. Many of these commitments that are classified as ‘not met’ on IMF Tracker were designed to improve governance. These include commitments related to publishing information (transparency), and those that require the passage of governance-improving legislation.

A major part of the IMF programme is to rationalize and privatize state assets. Needless to say, there needs to be utmost transparency in this as many of the loss making state institutions are asset-rich in terms of land, buildings, machinery and financial deposits they hold. The danger exists that they could be sold for very little, which has been the practice to foreign interests and friends and family unless there is competitive bidding and transparency in the process. Unfortunately, no one in the present government seems to be interested in taking those who were responsible to task. The warnings of opposition parties that they will undo any deals that are found to be self-serving, non-transparent and not in the national interest need to be assessed in this context. There is also a need for the IMF, opposition and civil society to ensure that the IMF governance prescriptions are implemented without delay along with the macro-economic prescriptions. A government with an electoral mandate from the people will be better positioned to accomplish this task.

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