Business confidence in Sri Lanka is at its lowest in years, according to the chairman of the Ceylon Chambers of Commerce Vish Govindasamy.
“Business confidence is probably at its lowest since I’ve been in business. It’s probably the most difficult times that we have faced. But we are resilient,” he told CNBC’s “Squawk Box Asia” hours before lawmakers picked Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe as president, to take over from Gotabaya Rajapaksa who fled the country.
Wickremesinghe defeated his nearest rival Dullus Alahapperuma by a wide margin of 52 votes in the three-way race. Of the 225 votes, Wickremesinghe garnered 134 votes, and Alahapperuma took 82. The third candidate, leftist Anura Kumara Dissanayake, secured only three votes, according to Reuters.
Sri Lanka has faced months of demonstrations over shortages of food and fuel amid the worst economic crisis in the island nation’s history.
Last week, angry protestors stormed the home of Rajapaksa, whom they blame for mismanagement of the crisis, and the president fled the country and resigned days later.
“The businesses are making sure we survive through this difficult time… [but] reforms are absolutely necessary,” Govindasamy said Wednesday on “Squawk Box Asia.”
Fiscal reforms are imperative for the new government, said Roshan Perera, a former director of the Sri Lankan central bank, who spoke to CNBC before Wickremesinghe was elected.
Having the new government in place is probably more important than the ongoing bailout talks with the International Monetary Fund right now, said Perera, who is now a senior research fellow with Colombo-based think tank Advocata Institute.
“The government being in place is actually more critical because they can immediately present an interim budget,” she told CNBC’s “Street Signs Asia” on Wednesday.
Perera pointed out that the IMF package is also important as it will help shore up foreign reserves.
“That is important because that gives confidence in terms of our currency as well as in terms of restoring external stability,” she said, adding that engaging with the IMF enables other donors to step in to alleviate the economic hardships being endured by the people.
Perera said higher taxes under the new administration will be inevitable.
“We have to understand that we have been living beyond our means for far too long… The day of reckoning has come,” she said, adding that the burden of paying higher taxes would have to be borne by those who can afford it.
She pointed out that households pushed into poverty as a result of the twin blows of the Covid-19 pandemic and the economic crisis need to be cushioned. “You cannot expect them to continue to bear this hardship. So that needs to be addressed through social safety nets, maybe cash transfers,” she said.
Separately, Asanga Abeyagoonasekera, senior fellow at global think tank Millennium Project told CNBC before the vote that whoever becomes the next leader will need to ensure accountability by “prosecuting the corrupt.”
They need to “dismantle the autocratic footprint left by Gotabaya and democratize, bring back checks and balances and independent institutions,” he said.