It is a marriage of political convenience born out of familial inconvenience. And hey, opposites attract, yin and yang, etc.
Ranil Wickremesinghe, the United National Party (UNP) Leader who entered the latest Parliament through the Party’s sole national list seat not to mention only seat for the Party, following the trouncing at the last General Election, has yet again taken over as the Prime Minister following his appointment by President Gotabaya Rajapaksa and his predecessor, the now cowering Mahinda Rajapaksa’s ignominious exit after perpetrating an island-wide killing spree. He has also beaten other contenders to the Premiership such as the Leader of the Opposition and the main Parliamentary Opposition Party – the Samagi Jana Balawegaya (SJB), Sajith Premadasa; not that there was ever much of a contest.
The reactions to his ascension have, as expected, been predictable, with the international community led by the United States seeing the appointment as a part of the first steps towards addressing the crisis and promoting stability while sections of the Buddhist clergy, the Catholic clergy and the Parliamentary Opposition (the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna [JVP] led National People’s Power [NPP]) have roundly condemned the appointment, with the Leader of the latter Party describing the move as a mutual protection society made up of the Rajapaksas and Wickremesinghe, an unwelcome blast from the past and a case of old wine in an old bottle – “thelen baddath kobeiya, kiren baddath kobeiya (the dove is a dove no matter whether you fry it in oil or cook it in milk)”. For these armchair (as opposed to hot seat) critics, this is the personification of ‘system unchanged’.
Yet, while tenacity and being wily pays off, it comes at a price. The price is that what is at stake is literally a matter of life and death of the nation. Even though this is not his first rodeo, the challenge of resurrecting the economy from its current state of atrophy and necrosis, and uplifting the people from the abject state of privation and increased indigence, is unlike anything that Wickremesinghe has previously experienced or dealt with.
It is true that Wickremesinghe was neither born great, and despite having greatness thrust upon him, has achieved naught either. Yet, opportunity to achieve the same, he has never been deprived of.
This time around however, the task is simply Brobdingnagian and time is of the essence. The apotheosis of crises can become the crucible of change.
The question then is not whether he is up for the task but what he should do to address the prevailing political instability, that is the first order of business, which is however a prerequisite in order to set the nation’s economic affairs in order.
For this, it is essential that he commands the confidence of the House of the people’s representatives, if not the people, the latter who are, coupled with their existing antipathy towards Wickremesinghe, soon to be the bearers of the brunt of the tough decisions that Wickremesinghe promised, unlikely to find him any more endearing, or much less react favourably.
It is yet not known as to where the Tamil National Alliance (TNA) stands with regard to Wickremesinghe’s latest record making feat of political Machiavellianism. The so-called Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP) Government ‘independents’, and the SJB including the Tamil Progressive Alliance and the Muslim parties, have however announced that they will not be taking any positions in the President Rajapaksa and Premier Wickremesinghe led Government. Only the SLPP, which until Mahinda Rajapaksa’s resignation was the ruling Party, and the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP), have expressed support. So much for an all-party, consensus, if not unity, Government, and coming to the country’s rescue in its time of dying; instead, the pseudo ‘independents’ and the Opposition have sought to hide behind the political veil of ideological possession and have shown yet again that they lack the cojones to step up to the plate when the nation they claim to represent calls for the same. Dissent is not a state of activism for this group of ‘yellow skirts’ (unlike the yellow vests of France) but a comfort zone of complacency. However, this situation should not under any circumstances be an excuse for Wickremesinghe to bring in the vanquished UNP to Governmental and semi-Governmental positions of importance, through the backdoor (as he already is doing).
How Wickremesinghe can swing the odds stacked against his favour, his way, on the political front, is by pushing through Constitutional and democratic reforms – the reenactment of an improved 19th Amendment to the Constitution and the repeal of the 20th Amendment to the Constitution, and the curtailing of the powers of the Executive Presidency and vesting such in an empowered Parliament via the introduction of the 21st Amendment to the Constitution – as these reforms have received widespread consensus.
Additionally, he also needs to appoint a multi sectoral body or council of experts and professionals to advise the Government on technical matters pertaining to all relevant fields.
Sri Lanka’s dismal and deteriorating human rights record which suffered black mark after damned spot too is a legacy that Wickremesinghe will have to contend with, and in this regard, his statement upon appointment and after seeking the blessings of the Hindu pantheon, that the GotaGoGama ‘aragalaya (struggle)’ should continue as is, and giving the assurance that it would not be touched, while also making light of the proposed future construction of the RanilGoGama following the short lived RanilGoHomeGama, sends a positive message.
This is also an opportunity for Wickremesinghe to make an unprecedented and historic appointment to his historic (in terms of the fewer number of Members) Cabinet by appointing a TNA MP to a key related portfolio, thus hopefully appeasing the European Union ([EU] whose Generalized Scheme of Preferences Plus [GSP+] trade concession is up for review) and the United Nations Human Rights Council, and perhaps such appointment being also seen as the extension of an olive branch to the Tamil diaspora.
Furthermore, he should seek to persuade suitable persons from the SJB, the JVP/NPP and the SLPP-SLFP, to take up suitable positions within the Cabinet, and in the likely event that there are not enough suitable persons from the lot, to convince the President of the need to let go of certain national list SLPP MPs, and bring in suitable experts and professionals to take up the relevant subjects.
All of these solutions are going to be instrumental in order to garner support within the Parliament so as to command the confidence of the majority of the House, and to thereby prevent a no confidence motion against Wickremesinghe’s Government, which would yet again contribute majorly to political instability.
The worse case scenarios of Wickremesinghe’s advent, include increased public protests owing to the fact that Wickremesinghe has never been popular or populist, and the resultant displeasure, frustration and general discontent, and the absence of the human and humanitarian element in Wickremesinghe’s approach to modern capitalism thanks to tough, unpopular and wholly necessary decisions, that Wickremesinghe will not bat an eyelid when taking, but which will heap untold misery on the already at the lowest ebb, suffering masses, and also erode elements of minimum welfare and social(ist) security for the newly and entrenched poor.
Then, there is the question of the nature of the political union between President Rajapaksa and Premier Wickremesinghe. Marital bliss has a way of becoming marital blitz soon, and unlike British playwright William Congreve’s couples who marry in haste and repent in leisure, Sri Lanka cannot afford to taste the sour fruits of such conjugal incompatibility and disharmony à la Wickremesinghe and former President and incumbent ‘independent’ SLPP MP and SLFP Chairman Maithripala Sirisena, characters whose inherent differences were akin to chalk and cheese.
There is also the very likely possibility of Wickremesinghe failing to live up to the hype and falling far short of the expectations, when it comes to delivering the goods.
The best case scenarios of Wickremesinghe’s advent, include him using his experience in international relations (including realigning Sri Lanka’s bilateral relations with India and China) and pulling in favours with friendly countries, especially Western nations, and thereby allaying threats to the EU GSP+, getting international actions concerning human rights related issues placed on the backburner, and using his connections with international commerce and engaging the Sri Lankan diaspora, so as to expand trade through the opening up of new markets for exports, for the inflow of investments and the creation of opportunities.
It could also be that the differences of the outwardly autocratic Rajapaksa and the outwardly democratic Wickremesinghe, with the former’s approach being militaristic and the latter’s belief in political processes, makes for and proves to be a complementary combination, with Wickremesinghe being a foil and providing a balance to Rajapaksa’s tendency to resort to the hammer and tongs, and thereby bringing the latter towards a middle path of sorts.
If Wickremesinghe does take all the required tough decisions regarding necessary systemic reforms, especially concerning the privatization of or going into public private partnerships over loss-making State-owned enterprises, it would yield dividends and greater opportunities for Sri Lanka, in the long run.
It is also within Wickremesinghe’s capacity and capability to inspire confidence in the business sector and manage to convince the business community and the corporate elites’ who are, for the most part, bar a few, disgruntled with Rajapaksa, to work towards boosting the economy.
Ultimately, it is not father time that will tell whether Sri Lanka gets on the path to recovery. It is said that eternal vigilance is the price of liberty. Therefore, it is the newly awakened from the democratic slumber Sri Lankan citizenry (including society’s cynics, pessimists and stoics) that has the biggest role to play in holding Rajapaksa, Wickremesinghe and his Cabinet and the competent team of professionals led by the Central Bank Governor, the latter who are handling negotiations with the International Monetary Fund, and all of them who have collectively taken up the challenge of “recovering and uplifting the economy, providing three square meals, giving a value to the Sri Lankan Rupee, and a future for the youth”, accountable for fulfilling such. The masses across the board, now politically engaged than ever before, should continue to hang the sword of Damocles above the heads of President Rajapaksa and Premier Wickremesinghe as a reminder of the ever-present threat of political rack and ruin.
Let the work of political, economic and national recovery and stabilization begin.