Sri Lanka is preparing for the local government elections in March 2023. According to an article in Wire, the two themes that dominate the political debate in Sri Lanka at present are managing the economic crisis through restructuring sovereign debt and the local government elections announced for March 2023. Over the last several decades, rulers of the major political parties in Sri Lanka have borrowed large sums of money at high-interest rates on behalf of the 21.6 million citizens. According to data from the World Bank, Sri Lanka’s external debt was approximately USD 47.7 billion in September 2022. The majority of this is owed to international lenders, such as the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank, and commercial banks.
With the appointment of Ranil Wickremasinghe as the new president in July 2022 by a few corrupt parliamentarians, and not by the people, the situation did not get better. Wickremesinghe, a former prime minister on several occasions and a key ally of former President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, won a parliamentary ballot after his predecessor fled the country amid escalating protests over an economic crisis marked by dire shortages of essential imports such as fuel, medicine, and food. Ranil received 134 votes from a possible 223.
Sri Lanka is now seeking a USD 2.9 billion-dollar loan from the IMF over four years in eight installments. With China yet to support IMF-Paris Club’s debt sustainability analysis over loan moratorium and debt restructuring, Sri Lanka may come out empty-handed from the IMF’s Executive Board meeting in March 2023. Sri Lanka still owes nearly USD 7.8 billion dollars to China which includes both bilateral lending from EXIM bank and commercial lending from the Chinese development Bank.
If there is no bailout in sight, how can the island move forward? Ranil wants to postpone the local government elections saying that there is no funding, but he celebrated the 75Th Independence Day against the wishes of the people further wasting the limited resources. He continues to appoint government ministers and other leaders paying them high salaries and perks as well. On February 19th, after 34 years, Ranil got some decorated elephants and dancers to parade the streets of Kandy at a considerable expense while the poor children were crying in hunger and patients were dying without medicine.
Among the people who tell the voters ahead of the election that they can get the island out of this hole (that they created) are the corrupt Rajapaksas, Ranil, and Sajith Premadasa of the opposition Samagi Jana balavegaya or Sajith Jalani (his wife) Balavegaya (SJB). Rajapaksas are well known for looting the country, embezzling even the Tsunami help, and more recently, there are social media posts saying that Rajapaksas have robbed the cultural mecca of Sri Lanka, the Temple of Tooth. Allegations against them are vast. Ranil is linked to the central bank bond scandal. Opposition Leader Sajith Premadasa is alleged to have misused three billion rupees from the Central Cultural Fund without proper approval.
As a viable alternative to the ruling coalition and the main opposition party, a third group is gaining ground in preparation for the local government elections in March 2023. They are not unknown to the readers or the voters. Its roots are in the educated, yet rebellious, group of youth who led the 1971 insurrection, who also is alleged to have led the 1988-89 violent acts. This group was then known as the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP). They are now in a coalition called National Peoples’ Power (NPP). Most of the current activists were not even born during their previous attempts to gain power. Under the current leader Anura Kumara Dissanayake, NPP seems to have gotten to the grassroot levels in the nooks and crannies in the island.
The World Socialist Website (WSWS) of the International Committee of the Fourth International (ICFI) says that the JVP emerged in the late 1960s in the wake of the great betrayal of the Lanka Sama Samaja Party (LSSP), which entered the bourgeois government of Prime Minister Sirima Bandaranaike in 1964. ‘The LSSP’s naked abandonment of socialist internationalism opened the door for the emergence of radical petty-bourgeois groups rooted in communal politics. The JVP was said to have a toxic mixture of Maoism and Castroism that combined socialistic phrase-mongering and promotion of the “armed struggle” with Sinhala patriotism. The article in the WSWS further argues that JVP, over the past four decades, has given up its guns and jungle fatigues for comfortable parliamentary seats and integrated itself into the Colombo political establishment. It formed the NPP in 2015 with some academics, other professionals, JVP-controlled trade unions, and other organizations to contest the general elections in August of that year. Since then, it has widened its base among the upper-middle-class milieu and a layer of local businessmen.’
Although the JVP/NPP criticizes other parties as corrupt, the JVP is also said to have a history of aligning with and supporting the capitalist parties they criticize. For example, they have supported the 26-year-long bloody anti-Tamil communal war to entrench the domination of the Sinhala elites.
Can the NPP lead the troubled island out of the depth it is in? There are several questions about their ability to lead. The first question is, will there be a local government election for them to win in March? Ranil says there is no money for elections. The second is if there is an election, will that be a fair election? The ruling coalition will do its best to rig it. Third, even if the NPP wins, can they fight for a parliamentary election and win, and if they win, can they effectively deal with India, China, the US, and international funding agencies? These are the questions on many people’s minds.