resident Ranil Wickremesinghe (lef) and former President Gotabaya Rajapaksa (right) forced to flee the country in July 2022. Source: Asian Affairs - Photo: 2023

Sri Lanka: The Die is Cast

By Neville de Silva*

LONDON, 5 May 2023 (IDN) — Sri Lanka’s stand-in president Ranil Wickremesinghe is no Julius Caesar. But he is ready to cross his own Rubicon as he must. For time is running out fast for him after almost 50 years in politics and slowly nudging his 75th birthday.

Just a few days before Sri Lanka’s biggest traditional festival—the Sinhala and Tamil New Year in mid-April—President Wickremesinghe made his move. Not that political observers and social media were not already speculating about his political future, except that the decision was made public sooner than most had expected.

At a discussion with members of some of the country’s minor opposition parties, Wickremesinghe broke the news that he would contest the next presidential election due around September-October next year.

Right now, he is in place to complete the five-year term of President Gotabaya Rajapaksa who, though popularly elected in November 2019, was unceremoniously ejected from office after an unprecedented months-long mass protests demanding his resignation, forced him to flee the country last July and send in his resignation from Singapore.

It was a curious turn in Sri Lankan politics that brought Ranil Wickremesinghe to where he is today. If the voting public had spurned Wickremesinghe at elections and did so decisively when his United National Party (UNP) lost every seat it contested, including his own, in August 2020, it was his arch political enemy that installed him in power.

It was Sri Lanka’s once most powerful political family—the Rajapaksas—who until early last year felt safely ensconced in the presidency and parliament, that turned to Wickremesinghe to rescue them from an enraged people and an economy on the verge of collapse.

In April the Rajapaksa regime defaulted on its debt payments for the first time since independence in 1948 and announced it was bankrupt. Such a fall from grace to disgrace was not something even the Rajapaksa family could survive, despite all the manoeuvres of the president and his bunch of immature advisers handpicked by Gotabaya.

As the public resentment mounted, President Gotabaya called in early May for the resignation of his elder brother and prime minister Mahinda Rajapaksa, followed by the cabinet led by other Rajapaksa siblings. Gotabaya’s choices were limited. Anybody chosen from within the ruling Rajapaksa-managed SLPP (or Pohottuwa as the party is called) that dominated parliament, would only have enraged an already rebellious public even more.

President Gotabaya quickly consulted opposition political leaders to fill the prime ministership so that he could send the government down the river while he stayed safely—he hoped—on the bank.

But with some ignoring the offer and others either hesitant or dragging their feet over it, Gotabaya quickly turned to Ranil Wickremesinghe who had managed to return to parliament on his party’s National List which allowed the UNP one seat calculated on the percentage of votes it had garnered at the August 2020 parliamentary elections.

In July, within two months of his becoming prime minister, he was catapulted to president when Gotabaya resigned, and parliament was left to elect an interim president to serve the rest of Gotabaya’s term as the constitution dictated.

With SLPP dominant in parliament and Wickremesinghe having been tapped by the Rajapaksas to serve out the remaining 2 1/2 years, he had got to the top of the totem by an utterly unexpected route.

It has been claimed by Wickremesinghe supporters and some politically non-committed observers that with his long experience in political life and governments in power, he was best suited to fit the bill at this critical stage in Sri Lanka’s history.

But others claim there is more to it than that. Mahinda Rajapaksa and Ranil Wickremesinghe are the two longest serving parliamentarian in harness today. Mahinda entered parliament in 1970 from the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP), then led by Sirimavo Bandaranaike, the world’s first woman prime minister.

Wickremesinghe did so in 1977 from the UNP led by his uncle Junius Richard Jayewardene, who was elevated as the country’s first executive president through a new constitution adopted the next year.

They say that both have had a close and long-standing relationship during which they have helped each other when needed, coming as they do from a political class with family backgrounds that go way back to days before or around independence.

The Rajapaksas expect Ranil Wickremesinghe to look after their family interests and pave the way for Mahinda’s son Namal to pick up the baton of state power when the time is considered ripe and an irate public have forgotten—and perhaps forgiven—the Rajapaksa political indiscretions and malfeasance that some strongly believe is largely responsible for the country’s unprecedented mess.

It is scant wonder then that critics have renamed Ranil as Wickremesinghe Rajapaksa. But Wickremesinghe’s sudden announcement of his intended candidature has more than ruffled feathers in sections of the strongly-Rajapaksa SLPP which suspects that the man they elevated to power in parliament to serve the rest of Gotabaya’s term, is preparing for the long haul- at least until 2029 when the next five-year presidential term ends after the 2024 elections. 

A few days after Wickremesinghe’s intentions were made public, the general secretary of the SLPP told the media that the party would announce before long its candidate for the presidency. He even mentioned that Basil Rajapaksa, one of the siblings and a former finance minister, would be an ideal candidate.

Dropping Basil’s name into the pot might seem more to stir the political decoction than for real. Basil Rajapaksa is a US citizen with a home in Los Angeles. The constitution forbids him from being a voter, MP or holding public office. He would have to renounce his citizenship, as Gotabaya did to contest the presidency, if he intends to contest.

But Basil Rajapaksa is hardly likely to do that unless he is assured of winning and who in the SLPP including his strongest supporter party secretary and MP Sagara Kariyawasam, would have the gumption to take that risk.

Wickremesinghe’s stock is now high because he negotiated a $2.9 bn bailout deal with the IMF-the 17th in the country’s history—that would open the doors for new loans from multilateral agencies, friendly governments and international lenders at a time nobody would give Sri Lanka a dollar.

Though the IMF has laid down a string of tough ‘conditionalities’ the impact of which will be felt in the coming months and years, Wickremesinghe is credited with lowering the prices of petrol, cooking gas, some domestic commodities and ending the days- long queues for these essentials.

Last month’s New Year festivities were more like in the old days than in the last few years which earned Wickremesinghe the kudos of sections of the public creating the impression among the people that better times were ahead.

Still, though six times prime minister, the jewel in the crown as popularly elected president, has still eluded him. Now is his final throw of the dice. But increasing support from the country’s upper crust hoping to prosper under neoliberal economic mantra welded together by the IMF and Wickremesinghe policies, is not enough to win votes at a national election especially after the UNP’s disastrous performance in August 2020.

On the one hand, his future intentions have raised concerns within some in the SLPP that he is trying to cut adrift from the Rajapaksa party that provides the ballast for his survival through parliament by trying to cause rifts in the party.

On the other, he needs to attract MPs from other parties, especially the opposition leader Sajith Premadasa’s SJB, which consists largely of former UNP members who broke away unwilling to continue under Ranil’s leadership.

Even if he succeeds in winning over MPs, some looking for a few dollars more and others for ministerial positions, it might not be enough to win electoral support from a public that is increasingly agitated over President Wickremesinghe’s physical handling of peaceful protestors from attacks on demonstrations from the time he assumed office.

His proposed new Anti-Terrorism Bill which has evoked widespread condemnation here and abroad, is seen as Wickremesinghe’s crudest attempt to use the police and security forces to crush dissent and trample on fundamental rights include peaceful assembly and media freedom.

How far President Wickremesinghe goes in his quest for a more permanent term will depend not only on how far the IMF deal will strengthen his hand on the tiller but how much longer he is ready to play Rambo against his people. [IDN-InDepthNews]

*Neville de Silva is a veteran Sri Lankan journalist who held senior roles in Hong Kong at The Standard and worked in London for Gemini News Service. He has been a correspondent for the foreign media including the New York Times and Le Monde. More recently he was Sri Lanka’s Deputy High Commissioner in London. This article was issued by Asian Affairs (London).

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Photo: President Ranil Wickremesinghe (lef) and former President Gotabaya Rajapaksa (right) forced to flee the country in July 2022. Source: Asian Affairs

IDN is the flagship agency of the Non-profit International Press Syndicate.

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