By Rajan Philips –
The people have accomplished what many pundits thought, and some even hoped, could never be done. Aragalaya and its July 9 explosion have removed the Rajapaksa family from the perches of Sri Lanka’s state power. The last of them, Gotabaya Rajapaksa, furtively fled the country in the middle of the night on July 12. He left without resigning as he had promised. Instead, he appointed Ranil Wickremesinghe to be Acting President while he is overseas. The Speaker of Parliament waited in vain till midnight on July 13 for Gota’s letter of resignation. Nothing came. The Speaker even considered the possibility of declaring the presidential post vacant. He should have also considered the possibility of abolishing it altogether! The letter of resignation finally arrived via email on Thursday night.
The people were expecting two resignations on July 13, and the Speaker to become Acting President. Instead, there were no resignations but two presidents – one on the run, and the other acting out. The Speaker was kept waiting. As the Bar Association has noted the uncertainty and chaos created by the non-resignation of the President on July 13 and the appointment of an Acting President under Article 37(1) of the Constitution should and could have been avoided.
Acting President, First Ever!
Ranil Wickremesinghe, Sri Lanka’s first ever Acting President, sees everything differently from everyone else in Sri Lanka. He began acting vigorously as if he has been President from 1978. He should have been honest and forthcoming, and explained to the country why he did not resign, and how and by whom it was decided that Gotabaya Rajapaksa could leave the country and leave Ranil Wickremesinghe to be Acting President. Instead, he released a televised statement at noon on Wednesday (July 13), that was ill-advised and ill-timed. It was also provocative in tone and politically foolish in content. He was not even sworn as Acting President when his statement came out and was reported worldwide.
In his statement, Mr. Wickremesinghe declared that he had ordered the military to “do whatever is necessary to restore order”. Even as he called on the protesters to withdraw from the occupied buildings and co-operate with authorities, he issued the ultimatum to aragalaya protesters: “We can’t tear up our constitution. We can’t allow fascists to take over. We must end this fascist threat to democracy.”
When did aragalaya protesters become fascists? The minute after Ranil Wickremesinghe became Acting President? It is bad to tear up even a bad constitution, but it is worse to risk tearing up the country. Even Gotabaya Rajapaksa, the military man, did not dare order the military to do whatever is necessary. Another military man, Sarath Fonseka, Ranil Wickremesinghe’s substitute candidate in the 2010 presidential election, publicly rebuked the Acting President and appealed to the military chiefs to ignore his unconstitutional orders.
To their credit, and throughout this crisis the military leadership has been cautious in its approach to the crisis and have appeared to be more empathetic to the suffering people than many of the civilian political leaders. Strikingly, after the Acting President had made his order to the military chiefs, the chiefs called upon political party leaders to meet with the Speaker and “tell them (the) next political steps they intended to take until a new President is elected and called on the public and young protestors to be calm.”
Quite a contrast to the over-the-top statement of Wickremesinghe. As well, there has been no indication of the new Acting President (AP) reaching out to other party leaders. Except, there was one report according to which the AP had asked Speaker to find a nominee for PM in parliament acceptable to both the government and the opposition? Is Wickremesinghe the Queen’s new Viceroy, expecting the Speaker of Parliament to do errands for him?
On the other hand, the reported statements of military chiefs avoided any direct reference to the order issued by the Acting President. The military chiefs described their role as defenders of the Constitution and asked for the people’s support. Military chiefs and the IGP even attended the Party Leaders meeting convened by the Speaker on Thursday, July 14. The governing SLPP did not attend the meeting, but all the other party leaders did and unanimously decided to ask, “Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe to vacate his position at the earliest possible (time) to defuse the prevailing crisis situation.” Defusing the situation is what is called for and that is precisely what Ranil Wickremesinghe failed to do in his maiden statement as Acting President.
Ranil Wickremesinghe was finally sworn in as Acting President on Friday, July 15. But he seems to be having a conveniently timed amnesia about the sequence of events that elevated him first to be Prime Minister and now Acting President. Both elevations came courtesy of an embattled President, Gotabaya Rajapaksa, who for all the narratives about him as a war hero has shown neither the head nor the stomach for a straight political fight. So, he turned to Ranil Wickremesinghe to be his saviour and that of the Rajapaksa family. First, to avoid resignation in May, and two months later in July to leave the country before a travel ban could be imposed on him as it has been on his brothers and former and now disgraced aides. This is how all of Sri Lanka sees the Ranil-Rajapaksa twosome.
And that is why public protests boiled all over again on July 13 when people became suspicious that they were being duped again by the RR-twosome. They have been partially duped for sure – with only one resignation arriving via email and the other finessed away via the Acting President arrangement. The aragalaya protests ever since they began in March have had their ebbs and flows. For what they have achieved in getting rid of an upstart dynasty, the protests have been remarkably peaceful and even decorous. The excesses that occurred on May 9 and again on July 9 and July 13, will have to be seen in the provocations that preceded them.
That said, the torching of Ranil Wickremesinghe’s 5th Lane residence in Colombo is an unforgivable act of arson for which no condemnation can be enough. At the same time, there have been plausible indications that the burning was not by the main protesters but a set up by other troublemakers with their own agendas. Ever since 1977, Sri Lanka has gone through spates of killings, vandalisms, burning properties and burning libraries, and years of war itself. The aragalaya emergence has kindled hopes in the minds of many activists that there is an opportunity now to recast Sri Lanka’s politics anew. Some superstructure recasting is necessary anyway to repair the broken economic base.
If Gotabaya Rajapaksa had resigned two months earlier along with his brothers, the country would have been on the path to recovery that much sooner. The question now is whether the country can survive the continuation of Ranil Wickremesinghe in one office or another without plunging into another crisis. He is certainly the lightning rod for all political castigations, most of which are self-inflicted. But he is not the only hindrance to the country forging a new path ahead.
In fact, there is no one inspirational or charismatic enough leader to take a clear lead before the people, bypassing Ranil Wickremesinghe or anybody else. When there are no outstanding leadership prospects, the preferred alternative is for the contenders to work together rather than against one another. Yet, there is no hope for a consensus candidate for the interim president position, only a growing list of contenders. A highly contested and potentially corrupt vote in parliament for the interim president will not make it easy for the winning candidate to reunite the party leaders and MPs to set up a ‘caretaker government’ until general elections can be held to elect a new parliament.
The current parliament, even though it has still not reached the halfway mark of its five year term, has totally lost credibility and it is only dragging on because elections cannot be held soon enough. Yet in the dire circumstances of IMF negotiations and procuring essential supplies, the parliament has a role to play, and the current MPs must play their part, even if they are to be corralled and coerced to doing it. Ideally, the interim president that parliament will soon elect could be someone who has no political ambition beyond the caretaker-purpose that the current parliament must fulfill before it is dissolved. In other words, the interim president must be someone who will declare that he (there is no hope for any ‘she’ emerging) will not be contesting the next parliamentary or presidential election. Such a criterion might facilitate MPs coalescing around a consensus candidate instead of polarizing around multiple contenders.
If Ranil Wickremesinghe ever thought of becoming a consensus candidate, he should not have burnt his boats by agreeing to be Gota’s Prime Minister without consulting all the opposition parties. Even as Prime Minister he fatally neglected or failed to get a handle on the fuel supply and distribution situation. He thought his lectures in parliament on the IMF and country’s bankruptcy was all that was needed to keep the people quiet. The fuel crisis was the trigger for the new wave of protests that demanded the resignations of both Gotabaya Rajapaksa and Ranil Wickremesinghe.
Gotabaya Rajapaksa has resigned and Ranil Wickremesinghe has wormed his way to becoming Acting President. He now seems poised to become interim president with the support of the discredited Rajapaksa party – the SLPP. That might prove to be a Pyrrhic victory or kiss of death, or both. He cannot cry ‘fascism’ and order the military “to do whatever is necessary” when, rather than if, protests erupt afresh demanding his resignation. A more statesmanlike option for Mr. Wickremesinghe would be to step back from the presidential fray, but commit himself to continuing his intercessions with the IMF and other international creditors to rescue Sri Lanka from its financial quagmire. He doesn’t have to be Acting President to do this, and he doesn’t have to do anything more in Sri Lanka’s politics.