Sri Lanka’s president said Tuesday that his bankrupt country’s talks with the International Monetary Fund for a rescue package have successfully reached final stages as he presented an amended budget that seeks to tame inflation and hike taxes.
President Ranil Wickremesinghe, who is also the finance minister, said in a speech in Parliament that his government will soon start negotiating debt restructuring with countries that provide loans to Sri Lanka.
Declaring that Sri Lanka is on the “correct course in the short term for recovery,” Wickremesinghe warned the country must prepare for at least 25 years of a national economic policy, staring with the 2023 budget.
An IMF team is visiting Sri Lanka and is expected to end the current round of talks on Wednesday.
Prior to the visit, the IMF said that because Sri Lanka’s public debt is unsustainable, the IMF’s executive board will need assurances by Sri Lanka’s creditors that debt sustainability will be restored before any bailout program begins.
Sri Lanka’s total foreign debt exceeds $51 billion — of which it must repay $28 billion by 2027.
Sri Lanka is facing its worst economic crisis with acute monthslong shortages of essentials like fuel, medicine, and cooking gas due to a severe foreign currency dearth. Though cooking gas supplies were restored through World Bank support, shortages of fuel, critical medicines and some food items continue.
Wickremesingh delivered his first budget proposal after he was elected by Parliament in July to cover the remainder of the five-year term of ousted President Gotabaya Rajapaksa.
Wickremesinghe said that the United Nations along with other international organizations has launched a program to ensure food security. Schools have reopened and universities have resumed classes after long closures, he said. However, long fuel lines have reappeared after a quota system seemed to have brought them under control over the past weeks.
“I thought things are improving,” salesperson Asanka Chandana said. “For several weeks in May and June, we faced severe hardships, but things were getting better over the last two weeks after the introduction of the quota system. Now it looks like the shortage is still there and we are back to the square one.”
Power and Energy Minister Kanchana Wijesekera said lapses in distribution, delays in unloading, and payments for orders by fuel stations have created long lines. He said the issues will be sorted out within days.
Wickremesinghe also said that his administration’s fiscal program envisages government revenue increasing to around 15% of GDP by 2025 from 8.2% at the of end 2021. He also aims to reduce public sector debt from around 110% of GDP in 2021 to less than 100% in the medium term.
He also vowed to control inflation to a mid-single digit level, and proposed a value added tax increase to 15% from the current 12%. Other taxes approved in May will soon come into operation, he said.
The new budget comes amid a relative calm following months of public protests that led to the ouster of Wickremesinghe’s predecessor and his family members from power. Protesters accused the once-powerful Rajapaksa family of being responsible for the economic crisis through corruption and mismanagement.
Rajapaksa fled the country in July and resigned after protesters stormed his official residence. He is now in Thailand. Party leaders say he is expected to return from exile early in September and have asked Wickremesinghe to provide him with security and facilities to which a former president is legally entitled.
Since becoming president, Wickremesinghe has cracked down on protesters and dismantled their main camp outside the president’s office. The use of a harsh anti-terror law to detain a protest leader has led to the United States and European Union raising human rights concerns.
On Tuesday, police fired tear gas on students demonstrating against the detention of a student leader also under anti-terror laws.
“I don’t see a significant change except there is a new person in the office of the president,” political analyst Jayadeva Uyangoda said, as criticism mounted that Wickremesinghe was an extension of the Rajapaksas’ administration.
“No opposition party seems to be willing to join Mr. Wickremesinghe’s proposed all-party government for two reasons: they think Mr. Wickremesinghe lacks legitimacy and they are not happy with the dominance of the Rajapaksa party,” Uyangoda said.