These are turbulent times in Sri Lanka, with the country plunged into real economic and political turmoil.
Despite the dramatic circumstances, the political class did not take up the challenge. No politician seems able to propose concrete solutions and put an end to the crisis.
Ever since news broke that President Gotabaya Rajapaksa would step down on Wednesday following the popular uprising against his government, there has been a race to decide who will be the next president.
The country’s predominantly ethnic Sinhalese political parties are also squabbling over who will become the new prime minister.
Political wrangling over who should take over
Ranil Wickremesinghe, the leader of the United National Party, who took over as prime minister after the resignation of the president’s older brother Mahinda Rajapaksa in May following violent protests, has been struggling to address economic issues.
Sri Lankan journalist Amirthanayagam Nixon
Wickremesinghe, who served as prime minister several times before his last term, has the political experience and international connections to secure foreign financial aid for Sri Lanka and lift the country out of its economic difficulties.
According to the Sri Lankan constitution, if the president resigns, the prime minister becomes the acting president, until parliament meets and chooses a new president.
So if Gotabaya steps down as promised, Wickremesinghe will automatically become interim president until parliament elects an MP to fulfill the presidential term, which ends in November 2024.
But Samagi Jana Balawegaya, the main opposition party, is demanding that its leader Sajith Premadasa be named president.
The Sri Lankan Podujana Peramuna party, dominated by the Rajapaksa family, continues to have the majority in parliament and wants the next president to come from its ranks.
Another opposition party, Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna, is seeking the post of Prime Minister.
As political parties bicker, the general public, who are being hit hard by soaring inflation and shortages of essential items including food, fuel and medicine, are angry and appalled by the rhetoric and the self-serving actions of politicians.
Ethnic conflict and the military budget
Meanwhile, industrial production has plummeted, export earnings have dried up, and state coffers are empty. The country is bankrupt and has nearly exhausted its already scarce fuel reserves.
The reasons for Sri Lanka’s current economic turmoil can be traced back to the civil war that lasted nearly three decades. It was a clash between the Sinhalese-dominated Sri Lankan government and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam insurgent group, which hoped to establish a separate state for the Tamil ethnic minority, which makes up around 15 % of the country’s 22 million inhabitants.
Even though the conflict, which started in 1983, ended in 2009, successive governments have continued to allocate more and more resources to the army at the expense of other development projects.
Despite the economic problems, Colombo has earmarked 373 billion Sri Lankan rupees ($1.86 billion, 1.8 billion euros) for the 2022 defense budget, a 14% increase over the allocation of 2021.
In the 13 years since the end of the conflict, the Ministry of Defense has been the recipient of the largest share of public spending.
Ethnic tensions have prevented the country from developing its marine-rich Tamil-populated northern and eastern regions. The development of these regions could stimulate the economy, in particular the export of seafood products, which generate wealth and foreign income.
Similarly, the natural port of Kankesanthurai in Jaffna in the Northern Province remains underdeveloped while the port of Trincomalee on the east coast is used only by the Sri Lankan Navy for military purposes.
This imposes a huge economic cost on Sri Lanka, as ships carrying goods from India have to sail to the port of Colombo on the south coast, resulting in huge costs.
Total overhaul needed
Ethnic polarization, discrimination and the lack of meaningful power sharing with Tamil and Muslim minority communities are at the root of the current political and economic unrest.
Preventing such crises in the future will require the complete eradication of ethnic tensions, corruption and abuse of power. This will require a complete overhaul of the Sri Lankan state and power structure.
But Sinhalese-dominated political parties and Buddhist clergy are not yet ready for such changes.
Steps are being taken to pass the 21st amendment to the country’s constitution aimed at strengthening the parliament and restricting the unlimited powers of the president.
But simply passing such an amendment without a complete transformation of the political system will not eliminate the abuse of power and corruption that has plunged Sri Lanka into such dire straits.
Edited by: Srinivas Mazumdaru