INTERVIEW: The Role Of New Parliament And The Path To Sri Lanka's Post-COVID19 Economic Recovery - NextGenSL

Asian Mirror spoke to Milinda Rajapaksha and Rasika Jayakody, the Co-convenors of NextGenSL, Sri Lanka's first-ever cross-party youth political forum on the role of new Parliament and Sri Lanka's way forward.

Q: We are now in the midst of an unprecedented political challenge with the Parliamentary election being postponed by the Elections Commission. There is a possibility that election might be postponed further due to the current situation of the country.

Milinda: 

When President Gotabaya Rajapaksa dissolved Parliament on the night of March 02, no one foresaw the emergence of a virus that would cripple every aspect of our health, lives, and the economy. At the time, we had identified only one COVID19 patient in Sri Lanka, a Chinese tourist. who fully recovered and left the hospital in a few weeks. In this context, the country was only focused on electing a new Parliament on April 24 to form a stable Government that will hold strong the next five years. 

Understandably, the COVID19 outbreak in Sri Lanka has disrupted the election timeline. The matter is now before the judiciary, but we are of the view that the election should take place as early as possible and the people should be given the opportunity to exercise their franchise to elect a strong government that can effectively address post-COVID19 challenges. 

Rasika: 

We are not opposed to holding the election. The election should be held and there should be a stable government in the country. But the election is not a top priority at the moment given the severity of the COVID19 challenge. The Parliamentary election must be conducted in a free and fair manner allowing all citizens right to exercise their franchise to select the most suitable representatives to the job. All stakeholders, including the Elections Commission, have a responsibility to ensure an environment conducive to conducting a fair and just election is created and maintained. All political parties, civil organization and citizen groups should build a general consensus on the way forward and ensure that the true public will is reflected in the final result of the Parliamentary election.

For instance, if the election is conducted in the midst of a pandemic, many vulnerable groups will opt to refrain from voting. This does not auger well for our democracy. There is a school of thought, partly promoted by the government, saying that the election should be held soon and those who want to want will vote while others will stay at home. This is not how a healthy democracy functions. That is why we maintain the position that the election should be held soon but under the right conditions. 

Q: But South Korea has already set an example by holding an election in the midst of a pandemic. Can Sri Lanka follow the same example? 

Rasika: 

Absolutely not. Their electoral system and practices cannot be adopted here due to disparities in finances and logistics. Sri Lankan political parties are also accustomed to massive public rallies and direct interactions with the electorate, but this may not be possible under the current circumstances.

Milinda: 

I have a different opinion. We must find ways to hold the election and not to run away from it. It is true that the South Korean system is very different to that of Sri Lanka, but that does not mean that she should not explore our own options. We must assess the risk in a scientific manner and adopt the right practices. I am sure the National Elections Commission is more than capable of handling this task.

Q: What will be the role of the new Parliament in Sri Lanka's recovery from the impact of COVID19?

Milinda:

The Corona outbreak has resulted in a new world order and this requires a whole new approach. Especially the new Parliament will be entrusted with the task of passing fresh legislation and policies that will allow Sri Lanka to recover from the fallout of the COVID-19 outbreak. We have already embarked on an agriculture drive and there will be many other initiatives to strengthen innovation and other sectors that have the potential to generate more revenue.  We are yet to quantify the approximate economic impact of the pandemic but we have more than enough proof to say that we will be hading into an economically challenging period. Many have already suffered job losses and pay-cuts these issues will compound over the next few months. I am positive that our government will adopt fresh, out-of-the-box thinking to emerge strongly from the crisis.

Rasika:

 I agree with Milinda's viewpoint on this matter. I think we will require radical and far-reaching reforms that will strengthen the export sector, the manufacturing industry, and agriculture. The new Parliament will have to play a critical role in chartering this journey.

It is now evident that our traditional avenues of income will dry up due to the current global trends. For instance, all our key international markets in the apparel sector will suffer badly and we will be forced to channel our resources to manufacturing personal protective equipment (PPEs) for frontline health workers. In a similar manner, new markets will have to be explored for our products. 

Another key challenge would be to improve the productivity of our agriculture sector through scientific and comprehensive measures. This cannot be achieved with fancy social media campaigns but will require massive investments in food processing and storage facilities to improve overall productivity. It is true that our agriculture sector is resilient to external shocks, but the sector’s contribution to the GDP stands at a below-par 7%

.Q: We observed an alarming trend of racism during the initial stages of the COVID19 outbreak in the country. As young politicians, are you able to take a strong stand against this? 

Milinda: 

Of course. We were alarmed by the manner in which racism and hate speech found expression in the media space. It was not a time to play the blame-game and spread hate against targetted communities.  But, instead of a collective public response to the pandemic, there were organized attempts by some to create divisions along racial lines and whip up communal sentiments. Racism of all colours and hues should be abhorred. All leading political parties, therefore, must take every possible measure to ensure their affiliated groups do not resort to racism to attract voters at the upcoming election.

Rasika

I think the routes of racism runs deeper. But it is clear that that this will continue to be a major challenge, not just at the upcoming Parliamentary election, but going forward, given the polarization of our electorate. This was visible at the last Presidential election too. But I agree with the notion that racism will hamper Sri Lanka's recovery from the economic fallout of the pandemic. In the final analysis, I think it is our duty to empower the people to step up against racism and ensure that they vote for the right people. We need lawmakers who understand the pivotal role they have to play in shaping the post-COVID-19 Sri Lanka. 

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