By Rajan Philips –
Ranil Wickremesinghe is now President at last, after two defeats, two passes and one miss. He also becomes the first President, or anything in Sri Lanka, to pull a fast one on the country as his first act. He got parliament to elect him on Wednesday after declaring Emergency Rule on Monday, and then let loose the army on unarmed protesters on Friday early morning after swearing in his Ministers Thursday night. Quite a first week in office for a man who took forty five years to get there. He ignores all local protestations, but called in Colombo’s Diplomats to chide them and their countries for questioning his militaristic action. He reportedly asked them “in a light tone,” if it would be allowed for protesters to illegally occupy the “President’s Office” in their countries.
There you go, the new and at-long-last President wanted to have the Presidential Secretariat that Gotabaya Rajapaksa was shut out of by protesters, to be made open to him, not through peaceful mediation with protesters but by militarily evicting them. The so called Secretariat is a historic building that was once the State Council (after universal franchise in 1931) and then Parliament (after 1947 elections and independence in 1948). The old premises had a low parapet wall along the perimeter that people could sit on or walk over, more than a symbolic seamlessness between the people and their representatives deliberating on their behalf.
After 1978 and the imposition of the presidency, the building has been fortified by a spiked iron fence, separating power from the people. That sovereignty rests in the people is a modern constitutional myth, and when the military is said to be ‘defending the constitution’, which part of the constitution is it defending – the powers inside the Secretariat or the people lining up interminably for food and fuel that they will not get any way through no fault of their own? Be that as it may.
The President’s light-tone lecture to diplomats would have gone unanswered for obvious diplomatic reasons. But those who were at the meeting would have remembered that not even two months ago they met GL Peiris, then Foreign Minister, who lectured to them that the protesters are asking for the impossible and that “he (Gota) is not going to budge.” Well, Gota not only budged, but he ran. And GL Pieris is gone as well, the only minister to be removed from the new, but really same old, same old, Wickremesinghe cabinet. The diplomats would have smirkingly thought and compared notes among themselves that in which other country in the world, would the people have been able chase away an unworthy Head of State only to be replaced by new one who highhandedly thinks and acts as if he is a universally unique presidential know-it-all?
From Lone MP to New President
Ranil Wickremesinghe has had a tortuous journey to the summit of power that he has long coveted. He was a defeated candidate in the presidential elections in 1999 and 2005, and sat out the two succeeding elections for proxy candidates in 2010 and 2015. He wanted to be the UNP candidate in 2019 but was pressured by the Party to give way to Sajith Premadasa. The latter lost the 2019 presidential election and later broke up the UNP to create the now larger Samagi Jana Balawegaya (SJB). The SJB won 54 seats in the 2020 parliamentary election and Sajith Premadasa became the Leader of the Opposition. The UNP rump was decimated with Ranil Wickremesinghe himself losing his seat for the first time after entering parliament in 1977. After initially resisting Ranil Wickremesinghe went back to parliament as the sole UNP MP through the National List. That is where Ranil Wickremesinghe was when political events came to a head on the 9th of May.
It is not necessary here to trace the parallel disintegration of Sri Lanka’s other main political party, the SLFP, which ultimately led to the events of May 9th. Suffice it to say that if the SLFP became the family party of the Bandaranaikes after the death of its founder SWRD Bandaranaike, the SLFP splinter – the Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP) was created in 2016 for the sole purpose of being the electoral vehicle for the upstart Rajapaksa political family. The SLPP has had plenty of outside enablers, legions of beneficiaries and civilizational fellow travelers, but Rajapaksa family interest was always at the core of the Party. As Basil Rajapaksa would ruefully admit later, they were good at winning elections but not at running a government.
The SLPP electoral vehicle took off spectacularly with sweeping wins in quick succession – the local government elections in February 2018, presidential election in November 2019 and the parliamentary election in August 2020. Hidden away behind electoral success, however, was the family’s collective incompetence and crass corruption. Both exploded with devastating consequences for the country (and the family) with the arrival of COVID-19 and the world’s worst “man-made” economic crisis. The upshot was the eruption of people’s protests now immortalized under the rubric of Aragalaya. The protesters by and large voicing the anger and frustration of all Sri Lankans demanded the resignation of the Rajapaksas from their multiple perches in the structure of state power. Every one of them did, rather was forced to do, except President Gotabaya Rajapaksa.
The beleaguered President went looking for an alternative Prime Minister and an all-party government to avoid leaving office as a failed president halfway through his term. Few were asked, but only one agreed and that was Ranil Wickremesinghe. He said he accepted the offer to be Gota’s PM for the sake of the country, but to everyone else in the country he was also saving Gota’s bacon. Yet, there was a palpable mood shift in the country as Ranil Wickremesinghe showed signs of restoring order, after months of Cabraal-chaos and clueless-presidency, in the management of the economy and in dealings with the IMF and international creditors.
Then stories began to come out that Mr. Wickremesinghe was up to his old (yahapalana) ways of running a parallel administration with outside sidekicks without involving cabinet ministers, government officials and the President himself. There were even rumours that he was going to nominate one of his sidekick experts as Governor of the Central Bank for a new full term. The country did not need another dubious outsider after the fiascos of Arjuna Mahendran and Nivard Cabraal. Public pressure had to be brought on the Prime Minister for him to relent into recommending to the President that the tenure of Governor Nandalal Weerasinghe be extended to a new full term. Further, the Prime Minister earned the people’s wrath by his neglect or failure over two months to mobilize government resources to provide for an orderly distribution of scarce essentials, especially fuel and cooking gas.
The fuel crisis triggered the second wave of protests on June 9, demanding the resignation of both Gotabaya Rajapaksa and Ranil Wickremesinghe. Gotabaya Rajapaksa left the country after appointing Ranil Wickremesinghe to be Acting President. The President sent in his resignation papers from Singapore thereby creating the vacancy which has now been filled by the election of Ranil Wickremesinghe as President. President Wickremesinghe can serve out the remainder of the current presidential term ending in November 2024, and parliament can continue for its full term ending in August 2025, unless it is dissolved sooner by the President after March 2023. That is the constitutional position, but the political reality is different.
Political Reality and Risks
The demand for the ‘new’ President’s resignation was reignited at the Galle Face Green within hours of his election by parliament. Protesters, at least considerable sections of them, have rejected the election of Wickremesinghe by parliament as “a decision against the will of the people,” and have promised to continue the struggle for his removal. People have tasted the power of peaceful protest and the power to force a Prime Minister to resign without the bother of a No Confidence Motion in parliament, and to have a President run and resign without the laborious exercise of impeachment. The backdrop to these new ways of removal is of course the economic crisis, without the severity of which no protest movement would have come this far, or could go any further.
So, when protesters say that they will keep going with their campaign against Mr. Wickremesinghe, his government and even the whole ‘225’ lot of them, it must be seen as being predicated on their hardship experiences this year, the fear that their troubles are not going to be over soon, and the frustration that those who brought about the whole mess in the first place are still moving the levers of power without being penalized for the havoc they created.
The people are not asking for a violent overthrow of the government, but a general election to elect a new parliament. Over 70% of them in a representative sample have expressed the opinion that the presidential system must be abolished. People understand that elections cannot be called overnight, but they will not countenance those in power extending their stay in power without fundamental changes. There is no fascism here and there is no need to call on the military to do “whatever is necessary,” whatever it means.
Mr. Wickremesinghe caused a stir when he dropped the ‘f’ word (fascist) within hours of becoming the Acting President. He has since recanted and has adopted a softer refrain that he is all for peaceful protests but that he will brook no violence or the takeover or destruction of properties. Others blame Aragalaya for creating the political space that apparently enabled Ranil Wickremesinghe to become Prime Minister, Acting President, and finally President. Blaming Aragalaya for Ranil’s assent is misplaced accusation. Aragalaya did not bring Ranil to power, Gotabaya Rajapaksa did. So, blame Gota, or look into the mirror and blame yourself for enabling Gota in the first place.
The Irony of History
Whether or not Ranil Wickremesinghe will succeed fully, partially or not at all as President, there is some irony of history in his having to deal with issues and challenges that can arguably be traced back to the 1978 Constitution and open economy created by JR Jayewardene, the current President’s elder kinsman and political patron. While the constitutional legacies have earned their due notoriety, there are also consequences from JRJ’s open economic policies which have a bearing on today’s calamitous context. For all the policy shortcomings and inefficient amassing of resources for the accelerated Mahaweli development program, the JRJ government did achieve impressive strides in food production with periodical self-sufficiency in rice. It took a real pigmy to destroy the country’s whole agricultural system by his insane organic fertilizer policy.
But in the other no less crucial areas of energy and fuel supply, today’s predicaments can be rippled back to the introduction of the open economy and its uneven application across different sectors. The champions of open economy and privatization targeted easy pickings (private buses, private schools, reprivatizing estates, privatizing state industrial corporations etc.) with great gusto, but did not dare tackle the vital sectors of electricity and petroleum in strategically decisive ways. They were left in state hands with targeted privatization around the fringes to benefit government cronies, who kept multiplying later under Rajapaksa patronage. These were also two areas where demand skyrocketed due to the unbridled expansion of consumption that became the main feature and driver of the open economy. Demand and import requirements kept increasing while capacity stagnated and even shrank.
The saga of the petroleum industry from pre-nationalization to nationalization, selective privatization thereafter, and the shift from CPC monopoly to CPC-LIOC duopoly, would be a crucial case-study backdrop to the current fuel crisis. That President Ranil Wickremesinghe now has to deal with the fuel crisis intelligently and urgently to survive as President might be seen not merely as an irony of history, but also as poetic justice. In any event, he can only deal with the surface problems of supply and distribution, which alone would be quite a challenge to his administration.
The President’s biggest worry and number one priority should be to effectively organize the supply and distribution of essentials in an orderly manner. The IMF talks and funding facilities are obviously important as well, but their technical details and results have no resonance for the streets. At the political level, the overarching insistence is about systemic change involving constitutional reform and including the abolishing of the system of elected executive presidency. The new President would do well to pick his priorities and deliver solidly on even a few of them rather than chasing everything fanciful and delivering nothing. He should desist from creating impressions that everything is going to be fixed because he is President at last.