By Rajan Philips –
Speaking reflectively in Parliament last week, Chamal Rajapaksa, the oldest of the Rajapaksa brothers saw wisdom in hindsight and said that Mahinda Rajapaksa should have retired from politics when his second term as President ended. “One should be prepared to give up positions,” Mr. Rajapaksa, the elder, said. Shouldn’t this apply to Gotabaya Rajapaksa as well? It should and perhaps it would have but for the intervention of Ranil Wickremesinghe.
Whatever may have been the subjective intentions of Ranil Wickremesinghe in becoming Prime Minister for a beleaguered President, the objective outcomes of the new diarchic arrangement are now clearly in evidence. The desired political response to the protest movement that began in Mirihana, would have been the resignation of Gotabaya Rajapaksa and the setting up of an ‘interim government.’ The interim government would not only provide urgent economic management but implement much needed constitutional and electoral reforms.
One clear objective of the interim government would have been to reform the presidential system by doing away with the direct election of an executive president and providing for the Head of State to be elected (from among qualified citizens) as President by parliament, and for the Head of Government to be located in parliament as Prime Minister. In this new arrangement, the powers of the President could be defined to address any implications that the removal of the current system might have for the functioning of the Provincial Councils system.
Specifically for the purpose of economic crisis management, the interim government was expected to bring in experts and professionals as cabinet ministers by first admitting them as MPs through the National List. This idea was widely popular and would have required the SLPP and even the SJB to sacrifice some of its current National List MPs to make way for new and better replacements. But neither party showed any willingness to do this, only the JVP did. Finally, the interim government was expected to achieve its objectives in a period of 12 to 18 months, and set the stage for general elections and for the people to elect a new parliament under a reformed presidency.
It is now clear that the events of May 9 and the appointment of Ranil Wickremesinghe have scuppered the interim government route to economic recovery and political reform. The appointment of nine more (there is nothing new about any of them) cabinet ministers on Friday further confirms that this is all the change that can be expected under the Ranil-Rajapaksa administration. There is no need to pick and parse individual cabinet ministers. The whole thing is a betrayal of the people. On top of all the economic hardships they have been forced to bear.
It is remarkable how the appointment of Ranil Wickremesinghe has changed the political dynamic from what it was before May 9 to what it is today. On the economic front, RW has brought more than a semblance of ministerial competence, where incompetence has been the rule not only for the last one and a half months but for the whole two and a half years under the current President. While there are furlongs to climb before the economy is out of the hole, the political consequences of RW’s intervention are quite immediate.
First, Mr. Wickremesinghe’s handling of the economic crisis would seem to have had a sedating influence on protest politics. This is possibly due to a general acknowledgement that the ‘new government’ should be given some time and space to implement its economic relief measures. There are and there will be protests over scarcity and prices, but they may not have the same political edge calling for resignations, as they very much were before May 9. This is not to say that that the dynamic will not change. In fact, it can change quite dramatically without even a moment’s notice
Second, there is a new dynamic in parliament, with almost unanimous support from all political parties, alliances and MPs for the Prime Minister’s economic initiatives. There is also reported parliamentary consensus that the Finance portfolio should stay with the Prime Minister, perhaps a recognition of his abilities and not his office. But on political and procedural issues, MPs, especially SLPP MPs, are content to stick with party-line voting. This was quite evident in the quite ridiculous votes for the election (yet again) of a Deputy Speaker and for suspending Standing Orders to debate a Motion of Displeasure on the President, and the even more ridiculous divisions they produced.
At the same time, SLPP MPs have openly started showing their internal cracks in providing multiple and conflicting versions of the background to the morning violence that spilled over from Temple Trees on Monday, May 9, and the afternoon rejoinders to it in other parts of the country. SLPP MPs and (former) Ministers are not only criticizing the police and the security bureaucrats but also one another for what transpired on that day. The recent spat in parliament between Ramesh Pathirana, former Plantations Minister, and his colleague Chandima Weerakkody MP, is quite indicative of the level of political interference that has been going on in the transfers and OIC appointments creating police incompetence and indiscipline in police stations.
Mr. Pathirana does not seem to have responded to Mr. Weerakkody’s and others’ criticisms over his interference in police matters. Now he doesn’t have to, because he has been reinstated to the same plantations portfolio in the Ranil-Rajapaksa cabinet. May be that is reward for his standing up for the President and criticizing the police for the mayhem that spun out of Temple Trees on May 9. In fairness to him, his is not the only controversial appointment to the cabinet on Friday. In fact, every appointment is a disgrace and an insult to the people who have been protesting for positive changes in government.
The third consequence of Ranil Wickremesinghe becoming Prime Minister is that he has rescued the Rajapaksas even before he could do anything for the economy. The immediate upshot for the family is that they have had a week of respite since RW became PM. For President Rajapaksa, last week must have been the calmest week since the protests against him began in Mirihana on March 31. And after a week of sojourning in a naval safe house in Trincomalee, ex-PM Mahinda Rajapaksa and scion Namal Rajapakse are back in Colombo and even attended parliament.
For all this and more, the President and the rest of the Rajapaksa family, whether they are now a house divided or not, owe a mountain of gratitude to Ranil Wickremesinghe for stepping in so chivalrously and sedating the political situation that was toxically antagonistic towards the whole Rajapaksa family. Without Ranil Wickremesinghe’s intervention the Rajapaksas would not have had the reprieve they are having now. No one knows what their immediate political plans are, and no one knows what plans the police and the Attorney General have to question the former Prime Minister on the background to the violence that spilled over from Temple Trees on May 9. Especially since other MPs have been questions, and some even arrested.
The political question of the day, however, is the future of the presidency of Gotabaya Rajapaksa. Is the protest against him still strong enough to force an early resignation? Or has he weathered the storm to survive till his single term is over, or will he leave prematurely when the political dust settles and in a more dignified manner than his brother? A second related question is what prospects are now left for achieving the political and constitutional reforms that seemed to so within grasp before May 9?
Friday’s cabinet appointments have destroyed whatever economic good will that Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe may have mustered in the few days he has been Prime Minister. There is already bad blood in parliament over the co-option of SLFP and SJP MPs as cabinet ministers ignoring the decision of the two parties not to accept cabinet positions while supporting the economic initiatives of the Ranil-Rajapaksa government. Maithripala Sirisena has warned in parliament that the people will “lose confidence in the new government too.”
The fact of the matter is that there is no new government and it has no confidence to lose. Ranil Wickremesinghe may have given some semblance of newness to the government based on his approach to handling the economic crisis. But if he thought that he could handle the economy independent of politics, that is proving itself to be a gross miscalculation. In a well circulated tweet explaining why he could not accept a cabinet position in the current situation, SJB (ex-UNP) MP, and Economist, Harsha de Silva said that the Sri Lankan crisis “is a toxic combination of economics and politics. The resolution depends on both and my joining Cabinet as an ‘independent MP’ will only worsen the political crisis.” Ranil Wickremesinghe, the more experienced of the two, has just done that.