By Rajan Philips –
President Wickremesinghe is being described as a “Hobbled President”, on account of his parliamentary IOUs to the Rajapaksas. In its editorial last week, titled, “Hobbled President and jumbo administration,” the Sunday Island suggested that “until he is constitutionally enabled to dissolve parliament early next year, President Wickremesinghe will remain hobbled.” I would argue that President Wickremesinghe finds himself hobbled not only because of Rajapaksa antics, but also because of his own cynical ploys and the self-serving choices he has been making.
To put it bluntly, President Wickremesinghe will not dissolve parliament even when he is enabled to do as early as next year (after March 2023), simply because dissolving parliament now will not help his case to extend his tenure as President beyond November 2025. There is no question that he means well when he speaks of progressive political reforms and a process of economic recovery that will keep moving forward until its total fruition in 2048. One might even grant that other than Ranil Wickremesinghe there is no one else in the current parliament who is capable of articulating a comprehensive diagnosis of the country’s ills and suggesting remedial measures for them. Granted, Champika Ranawaka could be an exception, but he has more political enemies than personal friends.
As for Ranil Wickremesinghe, there are fatal flaws in his premises and in the trajectory that he is projecting. First, even as his visioning is sweeping in its scope it is bereft of realistic and demonstrably achievable goals and targets. A reason for this, and therein is the second flaw, is that he is quintessentially a one man band. Not merely by virtue of his being the lone National List MP for the UNP, but also seemingly to the manner born. His public and political life over 45 years amply attests to this. For all his sweeping vistas he cannot cultivate durable loyalty even among those who politically agree with him.
The third and the biggest flaw, in my view, is his insatiable presidential ambition. It would be far fetched to suggest that when Ranil Wickremesinghe decided to become the UNP’s sole national list MP in parliament he was already scheming to succeed Gotabaya Rajapaksa. However, when chips started falling and Gota’s short lived presidency foundered through incompetence, and the chance opened for him to become a crisis Prime Minister, it is reasonable to suggest, Mr. Wickremesinghe’s (widely believed) ‘long-game’ mind started ticking.
Everything that Ranil Wickremesinghe has been doing after he became Acting President has been geared to realizing a single-minded objective of his: to remain President till November 2025 and to be elected President thereafter for one full term, for one last hurrah. The same singlemindedness, to contest the 2019 presidential election, coloured Mr. Wickremesinghe’s entire tenure as yahapalanaya Prime Minister from 2015 to 2019. Yahapalanaya is now water under a broken bridge, but what Mr. Wickremesinghe is doing now or, more pertinently, what he is not doing now, is what is before us for analysing the inconsistencies between his words and actions, and the clever obfuscation of his true intentions.
Let us take Mr. Wickremesinghe at his word that he accepted Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s offer of crisis premiership and then became acting president only for the sake of the country and that his all-party government intentions are genuine. Then why did he not involve the opposition MPs in all the arrangements he made with Gotabaya Rajapaksa from the beginning, when Gotabaya Rajapaksa was agreeable to practically everything except resigning as President prematurely? Whatever arrangement the two men made between them backfired and Rajapaksa was forced to resign within two months of Ranil Wickremesinghe becoming Prime Minister.
After Gotabaya Rajapaksa left, there was nothing to stop Ranil Wickremesinghe, as acting President, from reaching out to the opposition MPs rather than to the SLPP. At that point Mr. Wickremesinghe owed nothing to any of the Rajapaksas, but he owed everything to the Aragalaya protesters. Wickremesinghe then did an about turn. He abandoned the protesters and gravitated to the Rajapaksas.
Aragalaya was able to get rid of an elected president, but it has since been smothered by an unelected interim president. Over 3000 aragalaya protesters have been arrested according to a statement by Champika Ranawaka. President Wickremesinghe made a show & tell of not extending the emergency rule beyond its first month, but then he silently gave the green light for arrests to continue under the Prevention of Terrorism Act, which everyone was made to believe was at the point of being rescinded by the Rajapaksa Administration.
For all his talk about youth parliament, endless promises about committees and fundamental reforms, he never did anything either directly or through emissaries to positively engage the protesters. Instead, he sent the police and the army to expel them from occupied public places, while promising to set up special zones for protesting. This is a new development for urban planning – from zoning for land use to zoning for protests. The UDA, which the Rajapaksas had under the Defence Secretary (i.e., Gota), can now look after Colombo’s protest zones. And stage fake protests at state expense.
All of this invariably led to Mr. Wickremesinghe relying on Basil Rajapaksa and his SLPP contingent to secure victory in the parliamentary vote to elect an interim president. Mr. Wickremesinghe won quite handily with 134 votes. But he lost his credibility for the umpteenth time. Basil Rajapaksa is now collecting his IOUs with interest. He wanted SLPPers appointed as State Ministers before he left for the US, his home away from home. President Wickremesinghe had to and did oblige, appointing State Ministers including MPs who are convicted felons. The appointment of 37 state ministers flies in the face of all the President’s lofty promises and lecturing about political reform. This political hypocrisy at home is not going unnoticed abroad, at the IMF, among Sri Lanka’s creditors, and at the UNHRC which has started yet another session on Sri Lanka.
Stand tall or stay hobbled
The power of dissolving is the ultimate weapon a Prime Minister has over all MPs in a parliamentary system. This is not a power that should be granted to the President in a presidential system, or a semi-presidential system like Sri Lanka. But in Sri Lanka the President has restricted powers to dissolve and there is no better time to use it than now. Since Mr. Wickremesinghe’s election by parliament as Interim President, the SLPP has gone through a few splits and the current number of Basil Rajapaksa loyalists is said to be around 100. That is, the SLPP does not command majority support in parliament anymore.
If Mr. Wickremesinghe wants to dissolve parliament before March 2023, he could get the support of all non-Basil-SLPP MPs to support a resolution for dissolving parliament. He will not do it because it will upset his personal calculations to remain as long as President, not so much to salvage Sri Lanka as to keep his options open to be a presidential candidate in 2024. Like Trump in the US, but not so obnoxiously. On the other hand, if he chooses to continue his reliance on Basil, via Zoom to USA, he will not get the support of opposition MPs to do anything positive in parliament.
The only way President Wickremesinghe can get non-SLPP support in parliament is by committing to dissolve parliament after an agreed upon interval – say between six months to a year. The JVP and the SJB have been saying this all along. And the only way Mr. Wickremesinghe can restore his credibility in the country is by announcing that he will not continue as President after the remainder of the term that he inherited from Gotabaya Rajapaksa is over in November 2024.
Two years (2022 to 2024) are more than enough for the President to finalize agreements with the IMF and external creditors. The actual working out of these agreements will take much longer, easily beyond 2029 – the time until which Mr. Wickremesinghe would like to be President. Long durations have been the experience of other countries that have taken the IMF route out of bankruptcy. On the political front, the immediate requirement is to implement electoral reforms. The President could and should work with all the parties in parliament to pass electoral reform legislation, bills for which have been presented to parliament many times over, and some of which were stymied by the yahapalanaya government when RW was PM.
Now he is talking through his presidential hat that he will go the people in a referendum to implement electoral reform if parliament doesn’t act within two months. Really? Here is the President’s ‘Catch 22’ conundrum. If he commits to dissolving parliament soon after electoral reforms, he shouldn’t have any difficulty in getting parliament on side to pass electoral reforms. If he really wants a referendum, it should be about changes to the presidential system. A referendum question on the presidency could and should be put to the people at the next parliamentary election, and the new parliament can act on the people’s verdict after the election. This is the opportunity for Ranil Wickremesinghe to stand tall, selflessly serve as President, and leave with dignity. The alternative is to remain hobbled by Basil until he is forced out like Gota.