Signs of a looming crisis had begun to gather on Colombo’s skyline since early March this year as food inflation soared in the island nation. Staples like sugar and rice were selling for almost double what people were paying a year ago.
However, the enormity of the situation first hit people in the first week of April when the government announced a surprise weekend curfew in the face of winding queues that had started to train at gas stations in the nation’s capital. In protest, the very next day people were seen defying orders banning petrol stations.
Over the next two days, a small group of protesters had pitched their tents on the Galle seafront, directly opposite the presidential palace, where they believed blame for the current mess should end.
It was becoming increasingly clear that the near total control of the Rajapakse clan over the people was receding. In government and in opposition, the family or dynasty has been at the helm of affairs in Sri Lanka since 2005.
After a five-year hiatus, the Rajapaks won a resounding mandate in the 2019 general election, catapulting party patriarch Mahinda Rajapakse as prime minister and his brother Gotabaya as president. Several other high-level political leadership positions were distributed among family members.
It is important to stop a bit and try to understand how one of the most powerful and entrenched political dynasties in the Indian subcontinent and South Asia, which ruled with an iron fist , lost the plot in just a few months. After all, it was the Rajapaks who were widely credited with wiping out the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, or LTTE.
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The inflection point in the dynasty’s popularity chart coincided with the downturn in the Sri Lankan economy triggered by the 2019 Easter Sunday hotel bombings in Colombo. The terrorist attack killed and maimed hundreds of people, severely damaging Sri Lanka’s tourism economy, one of the main contributors to foreign exchange reserves.
The Covid-19 pandemic only exacerbated the situation as foreign remittances – another key driver of the dollar – plunged amid job losses among Sri Lankan expats.
The final nail in the coffin was hammered by the Rajapaks themselves when the government banned all imports of chemicals and fertilizers in what was touted as the early step to create brand space for food products” organic products’ for export purposes.
The policy exploded in six months. Cereal production has fallen by nearly 43% and tea, the other most profitable commodity abroad, by 15%. The policy was hastily canceled. But the damage was already done.
The triple whammy of tourism downturn, Covid-19 shocks and fertilizer policy has left Sri Lanka poorer in foreign exchange reserves. A country that imports everything from fuel to basic foodstuffs like rice had little money to pay for its imports.
Sri Lanka’s GDP per capita, which was well above that of India just a few years ago, was falling steadily and precipitously.
The island nation has faced the worst economic crisis in four decades. The shortage of fuel and food was evident. Hospitals in Colombo have been forced to postpone major surgeries following long power cuts.
People blamed the Rajapaks outright for their plight. The ragtag protests in Colombo quickly turned into a full-fledged rebellion. Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapakse resigned to quell anger, but to no avail.
Things spiraled out of control as mobs resorted to beating and even lynching ruling party lawmakers. They set fire to the presidential palace. Gotabya Rajapakse had to retreat in a hurry as he left the country in a navy ship, leaving the reins to his former rival Ranil Wickremasinghe.
But people were far from happy as they blamed the ruling clique for making deals and crafting a compromise to set up a charade while keeping control over the reins of power. This is precisely why Wickremasinghe’s residence has also not been spared from protesters, despite being seen as largely anti-Rajapaks in his politics.
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It’s ironic, however, that Wickremasinghe, a longtime politician and former prime minister, finally achieved his long-cherished dream – to become president – amid this adversity. This happened when he was relegated to the sidelines. His party’s only MP in Parliament was first appointed Prime Minister by his pet peeve. And now, with Gotabya gone, he has been elected president by a parliament packed with Rajapakse loyalists.
Such is the policy.
The task for him as the new president is cut out. The country has already defaulted on its external debts – the first Asia-Pacific country to do so in two decades.
Efforts to secure a $3 billion rescue package from the International Monetary Fund have been delayed for a month. Help could reach the Sri Lankan coast by September at the latest. Fuel rationing and allocation was announced until the balance of payments crisis was brought under control.
Wickremasinghe will meanwhile have to deal with both the economy and people’s anger and frustration with the ruling class. This is why he seems to have given clear instructions to the armed forces to maintain public order.
As for Wickremasinghe’s tenure, it will depend on how quickly and how much relief he is able to deliver to the people of Sri Lanka, especially when it comes to commodities and needed commodities. . The current political crisis in the island nation was triggered by shortages of food and public services, much like the Arab Spring in West Asia a decade ago.
The new president, however, has sufficiently hinted that he is not just an interim president. He stated unequivocally that the situation was not conducive to the return of his predecessor anytime soon.
Ranil Wikramasinghe, it seems, is in no rush as he prepares for a long journey.
The author is a freelance journalist who writes about politics and politics.
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