Twin challenges for President in his second year | Daily News

Twin challenges for President in his second year

President Gotabaya Rajapaksa with Forces Chiefs.
President Gotabaya Rajapaksa with Forces Chiefs.

President Gotabaya Rajapaksa celebrated the first anniversary of his election to office yesterday but the period since his assumption of office has been challenging for the soldier turned politician. Despite a global pandemic that has crippled other countries the President has led the nation admirably, achieving his political priorities and creating a stable Government.

The Covid-19 pandemic remains the greatest challenge for President Rajapaksa right now. As of Wednesday, the total number of persons infected with the Coronavirus in Sri Lanka stood at over 18,000 with 61 deaths being recorded. Of these, more than 14,500 persons were from the two clusters at Minuwangoda and Peliyagoda which triggered the ‘second wave’ of infections.

When the Coronavirus pandemic first appeared early this year, President Rajapaksa ordered a national lockdown. This helped curb the spread of the infection in a remarkable manner. For months, only a few thousand infections and a handful of deaths were reported and Sri Lanka was commended for its success in dealing with the pandemic despite the limited resources at its disposal.

This success had now been undermined to some extent by the ‘second wave’ of the infections, the origins of which are attributed by most to a garment factory in Minuwangoda. The government however has responded by initiating lockdowns of targeted areas and by employing enhanced measures to trace, test and isolate the potential contacts of infected persons.

President Rajapaksa has declared that indefinite lockdowns for prolonged periods of time cannot be sustained in the long term, noting that the Coronavirus pandemic is likely to persist for some time until an effective vaccine is developed and then distributed and administered to a majority of the world’s population. An extended lockdown would cripple Sri Lanka economically, he has noted.

Economic front

The current state of the economy was heavily in focus on Tuesday as the first budget of the Gotabaya Rajapaksa was presented in Parliament. It was presented by Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa in his capacity as the Minister of Finance. It was noteworthy for a series of major investments that are aimed at increasing the productivity of the country in the coming years.

“This is a development budget presented to elevate an economy that has been shattered. This is a budget that will open up numerous special investment opportunities to our business community for production of local goods and services. Producers of all scales should strive during the next three years to allow the local economy to competitively enter the global market,” the Prime Minister said.

Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa presenting the Budget 2021 as Finance Minister in Parliament on Tuesday. Picture by Parliament Media

The budget offered some significant benefits for individuals as well. This included extending the retirement age for both men and women to 60 years in the public and private sectors, a contributory pension scheme, a special Covid-19 insurance scheme for affected employees and a loan scheme for public servants to obtain solar powered electricity.

Also proposed were the granting of permission for employees of the public service to engage in other jobs outside office hours, two years of leave for those who seek foreign employment and establishing a deposit fund in the Central Bank to help depositors of failed financial institutions, Prime Minister Rajapaksa announced.

Significantly, the budget did not contain any proposals to raise wages. The Prime Minister said the estimated Government Revenue for 2021 will be Rs. 1,961 billion while the total Government expenditure is Rs. 3,525 billion. The budget deficit will be maintained at Rs.1,564 billion, which amounts to nine per cent of the Gross Domestic Product (GDP).

This enables the government to focus on utilising available financial resources to invest in the development of infrastructure and services over the next four years. The government hopes this will yield results in the medium terms by enhancing the quality of life for Sri Lankans while at the same time providing valuable employment opportunities.

Coronavirus pandemic

The Government also realises that the Coronavirus pandemic will impose significant limitations on the economy at least in the short term. This is because industries such as tourism have been crippled as they depended mostly on international travel which is non-existent now. The intermittent lockdowns have also meant that productivity is at a low ebb, with operational costs running high.

“We should formulate our national policies with a long-term strategic vision, protecting our sovereignty, to exploit the development opportunities that arise as a central hub in the new economic order of the world, to both the conventional Western advanced economies and the powerful emerging Eastern economies such as India and China,” Prime Minister Rajapaksa explained.

The expansion of activities in the airports and ports in both Colombo and Hambantota will be a prime consideration in this concept, the Premier said. “They will be a centre in international commercial processes, expanding domestic economic opportunities,” he said, noting that Sri Lanka has significant geopolitical significance.

A noteworthy feature of the Budget was the allocation to the Ministry of Health being almost doubled from Rs. 176 billion to Rs. 330 billion. This denotes the significance the government has accorded to the Ministry if the wake of the Coronavirus pandemic and is reminiscent of the increased allocation of funds to the Ministry of Defence at the height of the Eelam war.

Therefore, in the coming year President Gotabaya Rajapaksa and his Government will be called upon to perform a delicate balancing act between the health sector and the economy, while being unable to sacrifice one for another. Countries which have attempted to do so during the pandemic have ended up with disastrous consequences as seen in some countries in Europe and in the United States.

If this represents a major challenge for President Rajapaksa as he enters his second year in office, he will be buoyed by his political stability. His easy and convincing victory at the presidential election over Sajith Premadasa with 6.9 million votes and 52 per cent of the popular vote was followed by a resounding win at the General Election in August this year.

It was the President’s intention to hold the General Election as soon as possible, as early as April. However, the Coronavirus pandemic had just emerged in Sri Lanka at the time and the Election Commission decided to postpone the poll, initially to June and then to August when it was finally held following a period of campaigning that was affected by social distancing restrictions.

Ironically, the delay in the General Election may have benefited President Rajapaksa. His handling of the Coronavirus pandemic had earned the plaudits of even his critics and he had maintained his reputation as someone who could deliver on his promises. The result was a landslide victory for the Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP) which won 145 seats, just shy of a two-thirds majority.

President Rajapaksa and the SLPP may have also been helped by the lack of popularity of the Opposition. The once powerful United National Party (UNP) was imploding in the context of a leadership tussle between its Leader Ranil Wickremesinghe and Deputy Leader Sajith Premadasa. Denied of authority over the election campaign, Premadasa formed a party of his own, the Samagi Jana Balavegaya (SJB).

The President, the Prime Minister and the SLPP had campaigned for a two-thirds majority to repeal the 19th Amendment which they said obstructed effective Government by creating two power centres between the Executive and the Legislature. This was seen during the previous regime when then President Maithripala Sirisena and then Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe were at loggerheads.

20th Amendment

President Rajapaksa has managed to overcome that obstacle too in recent months: the 20th Amendment which makes most of the provisions of the 19th Amendment redundant was passed by a two-thirds majority recently. Significantly, even though the Government had only 145 seats in Parliament, eight Opposition Parliamentarians voted with the Government to ensure its easy passage.

The President has now set his sights on a new Constitution. This is expected to replace the current Constitution which was introduced in 1978 by President J.R. Jayewardene. Legal experts are now busy formulating this and the task expected to be finalised by the end of next year. Contrary to the previous rallying cry of abolishing the Presidency, the new Constitution will seek to strengthen it.

Just over a year ago, President Gotabaya Rajapaksa had absolutely no political experience, albeit being a retired and decorated officer of the Armed Forces and a very efficient Secretary of Defence. Today, he is the Head of State, Head of Government, Commander-in-Chief and the seventh Executive President of the country with a multitude of executive powers at his disposal.

It is a remarkable journey. If he is criticised for being fortunate and having the right family ties that propelled him to the Presidency, it must also be noted that fortune favours the brave. In the year that he has been guiding the destinies of the nation, he has been a steadying influence amidst a global pandemic that has rattled more experienced leaders throughout the world.

President Rajapaksa now embarks on his second year in office. The battle-hardened soldier and one-time Defence Secretary has two battles he must contend with - one against the Coronavirus and another to keep the country’s economy afloat. President Gotabaya Rajapaksa carries the goodwill of the nation as he strives to deliver on both fronts.