ECONOMYNEXT – The ruling Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP) in a bid to test the pulse of people, possibly via local government polls, is holding its first campaign rally in the ancient city of Anuradhapura amid growing public frustration over government policies.

The rally is taking place despite heightened fears of a COVID-19 resurgence and also at a time when SLPP legislators openly complain about public protests that greet them when they visit their constituencies. The government’s popularity has taken a hit thanks to, among other things, rising inflation and the highly controversial organic fertilizer policy which experts have warned could result in a food shortage.

People across the country have publicly criticized President Gotabaya Rajapaksa and his key ministers, accusing the SLPP-led coalition of bringing back the “era of queues” of the 1970s. Critics also claim that price ceilings imposed by the government have created a raft of commodity shortages on top of an acute foreign exchange shortage.

“We start our campaign rally on February 09 in Anuradhapura,” Finance Minister Basil Rajapaksa told a media briefing last week when he was asked about the government’s plan to hold elections.

“That’s our first meeting. That’s a public meeting. Then we will have our women’s conventions over the next two weekends,” he said, adding that the SLPP has so far scheduled meetings to be held in five provinces in the near future.

“We had to follow the health guidelines and thus had to temporarily we had give less priority to political activity. We cannot do that anymore. So we are starting the meetings with the public.”

The SLPP-led coalition’s first rally comes after the government announced a 40-billion-rupee (USD 200 million) compensation scheme for farmers hit by the inorganic fertilizer ban.

It also announced a 229 billion rupee (around USD 1.3 billion) relief package targeting government servants, pensioners, farmers, many of whom are rural folk, political analysts say.

Grassroots level farmer organisations have said the paddy production in the Maha cultivation season was expected to have dropped by around 50 percent due to the government’s failure in providing the required fertilizer on time.

However, Agriculture Minister Mahndanada Aluthgamage has said the drop would only be 10 percent.

Growing dissatisfaction  

President Rajapaksa was expected to execute policies that were not implemented by any of his predecessors since the country gained independence from the British colonial rulers.

However, a majority of his tenure in the top office was hit by the COVID-19 pandemic, which the government has said was the main reason for the host of issues the country is currently facing.

However, political analysts say the country is in difficulties due to ad hoc policies that were formulated by a handful of people without consulting all stakeholders.

“Despite the fact that the current crisis could be overcome by far-sighted policies, the government is engaged in pursuing a stupid and destructive policy that leads to exacerbate the crisis and maximise the damage to the country and the people,” Victor Ivan, a political analyst and former Editor of the Ravaya newspaper, wrote in his weekly column on the privately run Daily FT newspaper.

“The government’s policy on the use of fertilizer is one example that can be cited in this connection. The government has created an unprecedented major crisis in agriculture by imposing a ban on import of chemical fertilizers and other chemical inputs used in agriculture.

“The country is being pushed to a point where even rice, which can be considered the staple food, has to be imported. Obviously, there is a real danger of the country facing a severe food shortage and famine,” wrote Ivan.

Opposition parties have said the ban on agro-chemicals, the promotion of a miracle concoction as a precautionary measure for COVID-19 while delaying vaccines, setting price ceilings for rice, sugar, and milk powder that have now resulted queues across the country, and an import ban while keeping interest rates at record low levels show the government’s carelessness when formulating policy.

A fuel shortage that has now resulted in announced and unannounced power cuts has also damaged the current government’s popularity not only among the urban middle class families, butthe  rural population who are primarily dependent on cultivation for their livelihood.

Meanwhile, agitation by Catholics over a delay in justice for the 2019 Easter Sunday attacks has also brought into question the government’s credibility, analysts say. The Catholic leadership in Sri Lanka has said it will seek international assistance for justice amid raising doubts over the local probe.

Economic woes 

Several policies also hit the import-export trade as Sri Lanka’s forex shortage led to an import ban which has in turn made importers buy dollars from other sources as they are unable to open letters of credits in local banks.

Parallel exchange rates range from 240 to 260 to the US dollar.

In addition to these crises, the government has also failed to address endless demands by trade unions, which has resulted in daily protests inconveniencing thousands.

There are growing calls to go the International Monetary Fund to get comprehensive economic program as amid protests.

Both opposition center-right Samagi Jana Balawegaya and the Marxist Janatha Vimukthi Peremuna (JVP) have demanded an election to test the government’s popularity. The parties have been busy organising their own grassroots level political activities.

A determined Finance Minister Basil Rajapaksa, who is the strategist of the SLPP, said he wants to go for an election sooner rather than later.

“I have a plan to go for elections soon,” the minister said last week.

“We can only go with the existing [election] system. The only election we can hold is this [local government polls],” he said.

“Legally you can’t hold the presidential polls. You can’t hold the parliament polls until two and half a years. The last government had enacted legislation in such a way that we can’t hold the provincial elections soon. We need to make great effort to change it.”

Sources in the ruling party believe that Sri Lanka’s scattered opposition which are still not ready for an election, and the government’s compensation and relief packages could be used as advantages to rally around a new leader aiming for the 2024 presidential polls. (Colombo/Feb09/2022)