A New Start for Sri Lanka: Implementing Reform

By Milos Purkovic

The new Sri Lanka President Mithripala Sirisena has a tough job ahead. Having defeated the Mahinda Rajapaksa in a dramatic snap election in January, the former cabinet member now has the task of leading one of South Asia’s most corrupt countries; Sri Lanka has long struggled with governance and investment climate and continues to sit at the lower half of the World Bank’s Doing Business index. However, Sirisena’s 100-day reform program provides an opportunity to address these issues by emphasizing good governance and rule of law, investing in basic public institutions, judicial reform, and catalyzing press freedom.

Assistant Secretary of State for South and Central Asia, Mrs. Nisha Biswal, with newly elected President Sirisena

Assistant Secretary of State for South and Central Asia, Mrs. Nisha Biswal, with newly elected President Mithripala Sirisena

As a first step, on January 21 the new parliament introduced legislation to repeal a 2010 constitutional amendment which discontinued the Constitutional Council, empowered the president to dismiss or appoint members of the judiciary, and allowed for a third presidential term.  The 2010 amendment was widely viewed as the previous administration’s attempt to consolidate power, and The United Nations Human Rights Committee had made numerous requests to repeal the amendment since its passage. The new legislation will likely reinstate the Constitutional Council meant to safeguard the Constitution, set a two-time term limit, and introduce checks and balances to the executive.

Already, Sirisena has reinstated a number of appointees removed for political reasons under the previous administration, including chief justice Shirani Bandaranayake and former military head Sarath Fonseka. He has also appointed a temporary cabinet which will be firmed up following the parliamentary elections that are most likely to be held in late April. Moving forward, however, Sirisena will need to build capacity within key ministries, including the economic affairs ministry, a portfolio now held by new prime minister Ranil Wickremesinghe, and the finance ministry, run by Ravi Karunanayake, who held the position of trade minister in the previous Wickremesinghe administration.

There is a role for donor agencies such as the U.S. Agency for International Development to support these reforms. Currently, USAID has several active programs in the country, including the  Civil Society Initiative Rule of Law program. This $4 million initiative supports NGOs that promote rule of law, and legal reform. Additionally, the program funds the Sri Lankan Bar Association broadly recognized for its efforts to safeguard judicial independence. To his credit, Sirisena has moved on this by ordering the Telecommunication Regulation Commission to lift a ban on all news outlets blocked under the previous administration, a major step forward for a Sri Lankan media and civil society. In addition, Sirisena encouraged exiled dissidents and journalists to return to Sri Lanka, promising free press.

The new political environment in Sri Lanka allows USAID to play a more active role in jumpstarting the country’s reform process, especially in addressing issues of governance and business climate. According to the World Bank’s Doing Business 2015, enforcement of contracts, registering property and domestic resource mobilization are Sri Lanka’s top challenges. For USAID, which has recently revamped its Democracy, Human Rights, and Governance strategy, there is a unique opportunity to expand its programs and work with the new government to implement the reform agenda. This partnership could send a strong signal about the new government’s commitment to the welfare of Sri Lankans, and would set the stage for greater foreign direct investment to drive economic progress in the country.

Restoring the confidence of the people in the country’s governance and rule of law process will require an emphasis on transparency, accountability, and governance. However, the new government provides an opportunity for donors, the private sector, and civil society to work together to connect Sri Lanka with the global community. Moving forward, there will be a need for innovative thinking, partnerships with the private sector and civil society to deliver on the promise of development. Such opportunity should not be missed.

Milos Purkovic is a researcher with the Project on Prosperity and Development at CSIS

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