In Sri Lanka, a chance for transformative change

Maithripala Sirisena, new president of Sri Lanka. Can the incoming administration encourage greater investment in the country? Photo by: Wikimedia 

The surprising results of yesterday’s snap elections ushered in a new president for Sri Lanka — and with it, possibilities to improve the South Asian country’s path to development.

President Mahinda Rajapaksa — who was expected to win by a landslide — conceded to his former cabinet member, Mithripala Sirisena, early Friday morning. The incoming president will now have to lead arguably one of the most corrupt countries in South Asia. Sri Lanka has also been subjected to increasing international pressure to address its human rights issues, which are among the lingering aftereffects of decadeslong ethnic violence.

The 63-year-old former bureaucrat will be sworn into office Friday evening (Colombo time) following one of the country’s tightest yet most successful polls in terms of voter turnout in recent years. Indian President Narendra Modi and U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry welcomed the poll results, particularly Rajapaksa’s promise to carry out “peaceful and orderly transfers of power.”

The outgoing chief executive has been hounded with allegations of corruption and violence, which have made foreign investors and donor agencies wary of engaging heavily in Colombo. Can the incoming administration change this perception and encourage greater investment in the country?

“We should encourage the foreign and local investors to start industries, new projects which will help us and push ourselves to win trade and the world’s [attention],” Shan Wijetunge, principal lead for election monitoring and spokesman of Transparency International Sri Lanka, told Devex. “That can be the immediate requirement for the moment for development [to continue].”

The expert added that the new government should focus on openness, transparency and partnerships as the country attempts to reconnect — in terms of economic and development growth — with the region and the rest of the world. Although Rajapaksa deserves credit for focusing on infrastructure in his one decade rule of Sri Lanka, the country’s new chief executive now have to look beyond that, Wijetunge noted.

“We now have to start new ventures that will support partnerships and economic activities,” he said. “[The government] should ask foreign companies to come in and start joint ventures in the country. We should encourage the private sector to start more strategies and projects.”

Improving the ease of doing business and creating a sound investment climate in the country should be among the top priorities of the new government. Despite posting steady economic growth in the years following the end of the civil war in 2009, Sri Lanka has continued to sit at the lower half of the World Bank’s Doing Business index. The biggest problem, according to the latest index, is the enforcement of contracts, where the country ranked 165th out of 189.

And this is an area where Sri Lanka’s development partners — and its 20 million people citizens — could help as well, primarily by increasing the pressure on the new government to show accountability but also by making the whole development process a collaborative effort between all stakeholders.

“The public should be active and continue voicing their concerns,” Wijetunge concluded. “It’s time for everybody to come forward and push the political and economic system to come up with new regulations, new systems and new projects. [All these] will ultimately benefit the development of this country.”

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About the author

  • Lean 2

    Lean Alfred Santos

    Lean Alfred Santos is a Devex development reporter focusing on the development community in Asia-Pacific, including major players such as the Asian Development Bank and the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank. Prior to joining Devex, he covered Philippine and international business and economic news, sports and politics. Lean is based in Manila.