2023: A Year of Economic Revival | Daily News

2023: A Year of Economic Revival

Sri Lankans ushered in 2023 this week with widespread celebrations despite being in the throes of an economic crisis with the Government attempting to balance the needs of the public with prudent fiscal management while at the same time ensuring that the basic requirements of the population are met.

Ironically, the dawn of the New Year was celebrated on the grandest scale at the Galle Face Green in Colombo. Only a few months ago, the same venue hosted a protest campaign against then President Gotabaya Rajapaksa that culminated in his resignation leading to President Ranil Wickremesinghe assuming office.

President Wickremesinghe has sounded a cautious warning in his New Year message to the public, noting that the country will encounter many challenges in 2023 and urging the nation to face them unitedly, also recognising that this year will mark the 75th anniversary of Independence from Britain.

“We are looking at the New Year in 2023 after having undergone the bleakest of times, immense hardships, as well as the uncertainties and hopelessness of the last year. I understand the great burdens that are placed on all of us and the setbacks that a majority of us have suffered,” the President said.

“I sincerely appreciate all of you who are committed to our country first and I thank you for your patience and courage as we took the critical, initial steps to stabilise the economy. Indeed, 2023 will be a critical year in which we plan to turn around the economy,” President Wickremesinghe said.

“The year 2023 is also the 75th year of Independence from the British Empire. Looking back, it is obvious that we have not done as well as other ex-colonies. This is why the youth of our country are calling for a system change, especially at this juncture. This cannot be ignored,” the President noted.

Facing challenges

Echoing the sentiments of President Wickremesinghe was Prime Minister Dinesh Gunawardena. In a New Year message, Prime Minister Gunawardena also urged Sri Lankans to “face the New Year with utmost commitment to build a better country even in the face of numerous challenges”.

“We are actively engaged in development in all spheres, giving priority to food security and rural economic revival in particular. Let us come together and follow the strategies to strengthen the local economy in creating a prosperous country this New Year,” Prime Minister Gunawardena said.

Positive assurances also came from the Governor of the Central Bank, Dr. Nandalal Weerasinghe. The reputed economist told the media after visiting the Most Ven. Mahanayake Theras of Asgiriya and Malwatte Chapters in Kandy that his main expectation this year was to bring down inflation and to reduce interest rates.

“Reducing inflation is a responsibility of the Central Bank. I am pleased that there is some progress in this regard. This will result in relief from the economic constraints experienced last year. The interest rate would also be reduced leading to lesser hardships this year,” Dr. Weerasinghe predicted.

Opposition Parliamentarian Dr. Harsha de Silva who is an economist by profession was however less optimistic in his outlook for 2023. Sri Lanka is yet to reach a formal agreement with either the International Monetary Fund (IMF) or its major bilateral creditor nations, Dr. de Silva pointed out.

Local Government Elections

The state of Sri Lanka’s economy will no doubt figure prominently in discussions in the public domain, especially in the context of Local Government (LG) elections which are due to be held early this year. The National Elections Commission (NEC) has announced nominations are due to be called this week.

Nominations for the LG polls will be accepted at district level on January 19th and the election would be held before March 15, paving way to set up 340 newly elected LG bodies by March 19 this year, EC Chairman S.G. Punchihewa told the media earlier this week.

Dismissing speculations that the LG elections will cost Rs. 10 billion or more, Punchihewa said the NEC would make all efforts to restrict the cost to under Rs. 8 billion and added that the number of election officials is estimated to be less than 200,000 for this poll.

Candidates from political parties and Independent Groups are vying for 8,711 slots in 340 LG institutions. These elections will be held with 60 per cent of representatives chosen from the First-Past-the-Post (FPP) system and 40 per cent from the Proportional Representation (PR) system.

Opposition political parties have expressed concern that the elections will be postponed by the Government, particularly due to the perception that the ruling Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP) which swept the last LG polls in 2018 has suffered a discernible reduction in its popularity.

They have said that the appointment of a committee headed by former NEC Chairman Mahinda Deshapriya to demarcate LG bodies in such a manner that the number of representatives will be reduced could lead to a delay in the polls but Deshapriya has said this will not lead to a postponement.

Some political parties including the main Opposition party, the Samagi Jana Balavegaya (SJB) have gone to Court seeking orders mandating the conduct of the LG elections but statements by SLPP Sagara Kariyawasam this week indicated his party too was eagerly preparing for the polls.

All political parties that were in alliance with the SLPP will contest the upcoming LG elections under the ‘Pohottuwa’ or ‘Lotus Bud’ symbol, General Secretary Kariyawasam said but did not rule out the possibility of contesting in cooperation with the United National Party (UNP) headed by President Wickremesinghe.

SLPP and UNP alliance

“A confirmed decision has not yet been taken on an alliance with the UNP. There certainly has been an exchange of views between the two parties. However, the negotiations are not over either,” Kariyawasam said, responding to speculation that the SLPP and the UNP will contest as an alliance.

The SLPP was confident about the election, Kariyawasam said. He noted that, although being the ruling party, the SLPP protested as a party when former Energy Minister Udaya Gammanpila increased the price of fuel. As a party, we believe we should not burden the public by increasing their fuel or electricity bills, he said.

Observers have noted that a likely scenario would be that the SLPP and the UNP would both contest in some LG institutions while in other local bodies either only the SLPP or only the UNP may contest. However, details of this complex process would need to be worked out, they said.

In a related development, the Regulation of Elections Expenditure Bill under which the NEC is to be vested with the right to decide on a maximum amount which a candidate contesting any election can spend for his campaign is to be taken up for debate in Parliament today.

The Bill which was presented by Minister of Justice Dr. Wijeyadasa Rajapakshe last month provides provisions for the NEC to decide on an authorised amount for all major national elections including Presidential, Parliamentary, LG and Provincial Council (PC) polls.

Under the proposed new laws, a candidate contesting for these elections is prevented from accepting funds or other assistance from a Government institution, foreign Governments and local registered private companies for his or her election campaign. The legislation should receive bipartisan support.

While these developments occurred in the political arena, a retired Army officer, Colonel (Retd.) W.M.R. Wijesundera filed a petition in the Supreme Court (SC) on Tuesday seeking an order quashing the decision of the NEC to hold LG elections before March 15.

The petitioner states the decision of the NEC to hold LG polls at this time would burden the public with additional costs. Information that has been obtained from the NEC using the Right to Information (RTI) Act estimates this at Rs. 10 billion, he has said.

In his submissions, the petitioner states there are disruptive elements driven purely by political motives and agenda, that are attempting to exert influence on the NEC to conduct a LG poll though the present circumstances do not warrant the holding of an election.

With Opposition political parties already petitioning the Courts seeking to compel the conduct of the elections and a petition seeking the opposite outcome now before the Courts, the Judiciary will be the final arbiter if, how and when LG elections will be conducted in 2023.

The initial public statements from Government and Opposition ranks in 2023 indicate different priorities. The Government has the resurrection of the economy in its sights and the Opposition is seeking elections. A year of robust confrontation, hopefully within the democratic framework, lies ahead.


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