By Rajan Philips –
President Ranil Wickremesinghe might be feeling satisfied over his two recent accomplishments which have eluded him ever since he became UNP leader after 1994. First, a seemingly secure majority in parliament and, second, an intriguingly evolving and mutually supportive relationship with the military. At the same time, Mr. Wickremesinghe finds himself in circumstances that none of his predecessors have ever encountered. The current domestic circumstances of economic hardships could undermine his power and authority and even force him out of office, the same way they forced Gotabaya Rajapaksa out of office.
There are already calls for another wave of protest and another monthly culmination and resignation on August 9th! Still haunting the domestic scene are the Rajapaksas. Apparently, they are here, there, everywhere and the one who flew to Singapore is now planning a return flight. Rightly or wrongly, Ranil Wickremesinghe, grandson of Cyril Wickremesinghe and DR Wijewardena (there is no higher bourgeois rung in the Sinhalese social ladder), is now widely viewed as a Rajapaksa clone, and that adds to a rather long list of presidential liabilities. That is the domestic scene.
The external scene is worse both for the President and more so for the country. For all the powers he has under Sri Lanka’s constitution, the President is utterly powerless to get anything done outside the country. It is over two months since Ranil Wickremesinghe became Prime Minister with inflated expectations that he is the man of the moment, who would draw on his goodwill capital in the west and pull Sri Lanka out of its current mess. But nothing moved or got pulled out. Only the people’s frustrations and their queue lengths grew.
The story is the same more than two weeks after Mr. Wickremesinghe got a quick job promotion. A double promotion in fact, in as many months. The reality is that nothing could have been changed so quickly, and by anyone for that matter. The mistake was in the expectations that were bandied to justify Mr. Wickremesinghe’s double promotion. In fairness, he made biweekly statements in parliament on the depth of Sri Lanka’s crises, but he never provided any details on how he was going to address the country’s manifold economic problems. By details I do not mean technical details, which no one expects the President to do – otherwise, we would be back to Cabraal-square. But details of organization and delegation.
Even after two months, the President has still not shared with the country if he has assembled any team or teams of experts to address the country’s economic problems, the most pressing among them now are all external. The fact is that he has not assembled any, and it is all a one-man band whatever music that might be playing. The new reality is also that global economic conditions have gotten a whole lot worse in the two months since RW became Prime Minister.
In its recent update the IMF has characterized the world economic outlook as “Gloomy and More Uncertain.” The IMF notes that rising inflation in western economies, China’s slowdown and spillovers from the war in Ukraine are sudden “shocks” that the have hit the world economy when it was already weakened by the pandemic. As “tighter global financial conditions … induce debt distress in emerging market and developing economies,” the already debt-stressed and forex-starved Sri Lanka will have to compete with other developing countries for debt relief and financial assistance.
In what would appear to be a new direction from the IMF, Krishna Srinivasan, director of the IMF’s Asia and Pacific Department, has told Reuters that Sri Lanka should directly engage with China and other creditors to restructure the respective bilateral debts independent of its negotiations with the IMF. China is a big creditor and is not easily amenable to restructuring its debt, because it deals bilaterally with borrowing countries and giving concessions to one country (Sri Lanka) will open the door for other debtors to start lining up. China is also having its economic problems and, unlike India, has not been particularly generous to extend a helping hand to Sri Lanka when it direly needs help.
Even two years ago, Sri Lanka was a “donor darling” in global economy according to Anne Krueger, a former World Bank and IMF economist. She attributes this to the island’s “relatively high standard of living, good social services, and robust economic growth.” It is now “a lesson to other governments” on how quickly and tragically things can go downhill due to ignorant decision making and stubborn refusal to change course even after the unfolding disaster becomes all too evident. How will decision making be different in the new (and old) Wickremesinghe Administration?
There is nothing new about President Wickremesinghe and he has the same cabinet of ministers (minus GL Peiris) who served under Gotabaya Rajapaksa and resigned multiple times to assuage the aragalaya protesters. Can the President and his ministers act any differently now – from what they have been known for, all their political life? The initial signs are not very promising, but it is still early to condemn them as failures.
At the same time, one cannot help thinking that the Wickremesinghe Administration has so far taken every step backward politically and no step forward economically. And this will have, and is already having, implications not only internally but also internationally. Whether the decision making processes and responsibilities in the new Administration could change for the better in the days ahead depends on the political relationship between Ranil Wickremesinghe and the SLPP, which gave Mr. Wickremesinghe a solid base to score a convincing victory in parliament to become President. It is fair to say that Ranil and the SLPP have entered into a marriage of convenience, but inconveniently so.
President Jayewardene was known to have mused frequently that his penchant for a presidential system was duly compromised by his desire to marry the presidential system and the parliamentary system for consummation in Sri Lanka. I am of course paraphrasing ultra vires! But marriage of a different kind is now in place between President Wickremesinghe and the SLPP in parliament. They both need it for their convenience – for Ranil to be President and for SLPP MPs to ward off aragalaya threats to their political survival. But where do the country’s economic imperatives find a place in this marriage? So far, there is no sign of the Ranil-SLPP marriage in parliament giving priority to the economic question.
The first outcome of the marriage has been the clampdown on aragalaya protesters, forcibly evicting them from protest sites after the protesters had announced that they were leaving the sites voluntarily anyway. The eviction took place soon after Mr. Wickremesinghe was sworn in as President in the parliamentary premises, apparently as a symbolic act to emphasize the supremacy of parliament. The eviction drew significantly negative international attention, but that did not stop the Administration from targeting and arresting individual protesters. To cap it all, parliament by a comfortable majority endorsed the Emergency Rule imposed by Mr. Wickremesinghe while he was still Acting President, or simply acting up in his new role as president.
The recent voting tallies in parliament are quite revealing. In the presidential vote, not all of the 134 MPs who voted for Ranil Wickremesinghe were SLPP MPs. There were secret-ballot defections from all the parties in parliament including the SJB and the TNA despite their official party-line support for Dullas Alahapperuma. Only the three JVP MPs voted without defecting but the fact that Anura Kumara Dissanayake could not get any other MP to vote for him speaks to the JVP’s lost opportunity to strengthen its presence in parliament with all the protest upheavals occurring outside parliament.
A majority of the Tamil, Muslim and Indian Tamil MPs reportedly voted for Alahapperuma, while a significant minority of them including CV Wigneswaran voted for Wickremesinghe. It was a classic split-vote by Tamil MPs, with TNA deciding to go against Ranil Wickremesinghe and Wigneswaran supporting his one time bête noire presumably to spite the TNA.
The vote distribution changed from the 134-82-3 division to elect the president, to the 120-63 division on the Emergency resolution. As many as 41 MPs did not bother to attend parliament or vote on the Emergency resolution. Wimal Weerawansa was a surprise vote supporting Emergency Rule after voting against Ranil Wickremesinghe earlier. It is not clear how his other nine ‘comrades’ in the group of ten voted on the Emergency.
The SJB, the TNA and the JVP voted against the Emergency resolution, along with the emerging SLPP rump that includes Dullas Alahapperuma and, of all people, GL Pieris who seems to be suddenly remembering that he was once a law professor and that he should be vigorously opposing any emergency rule imposed by the executive! Even so opposition to emergency garnered 19 votes fewer than the 82 votes polled by Allahapperuma.
Sajith Premadasa’s decision to withdraw from the contest for presidency and support Dullas Allahapperuma was as predictable as it has become controversial among SJB MPs in parliament. Sarath Fonseka was not at all pleased that he was not given a chance to throw in his name as a candidate. He is now breathing fire and calling for another protest wave on August 9. Mr. Fonseka’s problem seems to be that when he starts taking himself too seriously, everyone stops taking him seriously. Surprisingly, however, no one has defected from the SJB to join the new Ranil-SLPP government.
The two voting shenanigans indicate how serious the MPs are about the country’s economic challenges. The situation in parliament is not likely to change even though parliament has been prorogued for ne beginning on August 3. The new session will begin with the President presenting his first Policy Statement on the state of the country and what he is proposing to do about it. The President could use his speech to set the tone for his government, but whether it would be enough to facilitate a more representative cabinet, let alone address the pressing problems faced by the people, remains to be seen.
Even as he prorogued parliament, President Wickremesinghe has acknowledged that his government’s main priorities are “to fix the country’s ailing economy and end the severe fuel shortage that has exacerbated after the last shipment under the Indian credit line arrived in June.” This is the first time, as reported by the Press Trust of India, Mr. Wickremesinghe has publicly acknowledged the severity of the fuel crisis.
It was the fuel shortage and its poor distribution that proved to be the last straw that broke the Rajapaksa presidency on July 9. A new rationing system for fuel distribution has since been introduced, but there are no new fuel shipments breaking through Sri Lanka’s gloomy horizons. A continuing fuel shortage will fuel a new protest wave and its anticipated culmination on August 9. President Wickremesinghe must find timely fuel supplies if he is to avoid the monthly reckoning that undid his predecessor.