By Jehan Perera –
The economy is continuing to deteriorate with barely any dollars in the government’s possession even to pay for essentials such as fuel and medicine. The people will not be able to tolerate more weeks and months of shortages of essential supplies that force them to line up in queues for hours. There is anger seething in people who spend hours standing in queues and those who have seen their real incomes fall by more than a half as prices soar and the rupee sinks. Even though the present economic crisis has its roots in the political system and its weaknesses, the priority at the present time is to salvage the economy and get more dollars to pay for the import of essential commodities. The anger that is building up in society was seen on the fateful evening of May 9 in the attack by government affiliated goons on the GotaGoGama and MinaGoGama protest sites and in the retaliation that followed.
In this turbulent environment UNP leader Ranil Wickremesinghe has taken up the premiership and the challenge of guiding the destinies of the country as prime minister at the time of its worst crisis ever. He has warned that the “next couple of months will be the most difficult ones of our lives.” There is presently much public opposition to his appointment, as the belief prevails that the new prime minister was handpicked to protect those guilty of corruption and mismanagement, in particular President Gotabaya Rajapaksa and the rest of his clan. Prime minister Wickremesinghe is also seen as a person who has been rejected by the people. He comes to the prime minister’s position having lost the last election as prime minister and seeing his party reduced from 105 seats to one. This will be the sixth occasion on which Ranil Wickremesinghe will be prime minister.
He was first appointed prime minister after the assassination of President Ranasinghe Premadasa in 1993 but had to leave the position the following year when his party lost the general election. Subsequently, he was appointed as the prime minister from 2001 to 2004 during the presidency of President Chandrika Bandaranaike who ended the term of his government prematurely. He was re-elected to be prime minister in 2015 only to have President Maithripala Sirisena dismiss him in October 2018. He was reappointed for the fifth time nearly two months later due to a court order. The past experience is that when the president and prime minister come from two different political parties the relationship sours and mistrust grows.
The possibility of a similar fate is present this time too. But it can also be different. The prime minister’s hope, and the country’s too, will be that President Gotabaya Rajapaksa is a changed man having learnt from bitter experience that he has been at the receiving end of self-seeking and irrational advice. Prime Minister Wickremesinghe has shown his mettle in taking up the challenge of heading the government at this time. He has been appointed prime minister in a parliament in which he is the only parliamentarian from his own party. He is too intelligent not to know the odds that are stacked up against him. He has twice had the bitter experience of working with presidents from rival political parties.
The ruling party members are likely to have their own ideas of what needs to be done and may not cooperate with the prime minister who comes from a political party that has been their traditional rival. Therefore, the role that President Gotabaya Rajapaksa will need to play is crucial to the success of Prime Minister Wickremesinghe. He will need to ensure that the ruling party members fall in line with the policies of austerity, sustainability and a respect for human rights that will be able to attract the necessary financial aid flows from the western countries and institutional lenders such as the World Bank and IMF. In terms of the 20th Amendment that he has pledged to give up soon, the president has the power to decide on ministerial positions and even to dissolve parliament after the passage of two years and six months from the date of its election. These are threats that the ruling party parliamentarians are likely to take seriously even if they do not like being in this situation.
The powers of the presidency that President Gotabaya Rajapaksa currently holds can be used to create the space for the prime minister to make his decisions and ensure that the rest of the government falls in line. The key need is to restore economic and political stability and the broken trust between the government and people. Parliamentary debates during the coming week will have to deal with two immediate issues – voting on the nomination of the Prime Minister and the election of the deputy speaker. Winning a majority vote by one side in parliament will only lead to further polarization within the house, which will do little to deal with economic issues facing the country. The president needs to make an appeal to achieve a consensus through consultations among political party leaders as the way forward in the larger interest of Sri Lanka.
In the meantime, the continuation of the Aragalaya (struggle) at Galle Face and elsewhere in the country can be the external check and balance on the government. The positive feature of this protest movement is that it has brought together the different ethnicities, religions, social classes and the older generations to be with the younger. The main target of the Aragalaya remains the president and the misuse of his presidential powers. Therefore, President Rajapaksa cannot continue to long use or misuse his presidential powers in a continuation of practices that have led to the present crisis. Even if the prime minister is able to ease the economic crisis, the political crisis will remain especially if the president does not engage in the political reform he has promised and which the people demand.
The Aragala site on Vesak night was packed with people in the same way it was 37 days previously when the protests at Galle Face overlooking the Presidential Secretariat first commenced. As it was then, the main target of the protestors was the president as evinced by the name they gave the site-GotaGoGama. The undiminished commitment of a core group of activists has sustained the protests through scorching sun, rainstorms and, latterly, a government goon assault. Their commitment is reflective of a countrywide desire to cleanse politics of its corruption and abuse of power. Time has taken its toll and there are fewer tents than there were at the beginning stages of the protests. People have their jobs to keep and lives to lead. But there are still enough who come even irregularly to keep the torch alight. Some even bring their children so that the torch may last through the next generation.
The Aragalaya has achieved important outcomes in the past month and much more than could have been anticipated before it commenced. It forced the resignation of the most successful politician this country has ever seen, who lost his way due to the dismantling of the system of checks and balances that he contributed to in the biggest measure. It has led the president to accept the need to repeal the 20th Amendment and thereby reduce the powers of the presidency, to take steps to ensure an all party interim government and to consider the abolition of the executive presidency. Prime Minister Wickremesinghe, has said that the GotaGoGama should be institutionalized and the facilities available there enhanced. This will also help to ensure that the president and prime minister keep to their promises.