By Rajan Philips –
The week that began with mayhem has ended in cynicism. Mayhem saw the ouster of Mahinda Rajapaksa as Prime Minister. Cynicism is the main ingredient in the appointment of Ranil Wickremesinghe as Prime Minister and the interim government that he and his beleaguered President are now cooking. The week saw the highs and lows, the terrible and the terrific, of Sri Lankan politics. It began low with drunken thugs streaming out of Temple Trees, and it is ending low with Sri Lanka’s most recycled politician returning to Temple Tress for yet another stint as Prime Minister.
The highpoint of the week belongs to the people of Sri Lanka and those who are protesting on their behalf. The low point is the home of those who assembled at Temple Tress and unleashed their thugs on non-violent protesters on Galle Road and at Galle Face. Members of parliament of every hue, with a handful of exceptions, discredited themselves to different levels. The Police lapsed even lower than its already low standards, while the army seemed restrained in its words and in its actions.
The President finally spoke to the nation, but said little or nothing new. He did not address the main protest demand that he should resign, and he did not give any clue that he understands the challenges he is facing and has the skills to deal with them. “This week, I will appoint a Prime Minister who commands the majority in Parliament and can secure the confidence of the people and a Cabinet of Ministers,” the President said.
Then he appointed Ranil Wickremesinghe, who commands no confidence from anyone.
The President, whether sincerely or deceptively, did go shopping for a Prime Minister after his brother’s panic resignation. Even Sarath Fonseka’s name came up for PM, but Mr. Fonseka rejected it. Sajith Premadasa was as usual caught in two minds – to accept, or not to accept. By the time he made up his mind and even wrote to the President, it was too late. The PM bus had already left. The comical pair of Sirisena and Weerawansa got their knickers in a twist over Ranil Wickremesinghe becoming Prime Minister and suggested three names (Dullas Alahapperuma, Wijeyadasa Rajapakshe and Nimal Siripala de Silva) as alternative candidates to stop Ranil’s appointment. That went nowhere.
The biggest reason Ranil Wickremesinghe won the selection for PM, in this highly competitive field of Sri Lanka’s best and brightest, is not domestic politics but external pressure. The IMF is said to have read the riot act through intermediaries to the President. The new Governor of the Central Bank Dr. Nandalal Weerasinghe (quite a straight-talking fellow, unlike his bootlicking predecessors), made it clear that he would resign if there was no political stability in the country in the coming weeks. Sajith Premadasa missed even that signal. He may not have been pre-qualified enough to the IMF anyway. The US and India, Sri Lanka’s principal banker and protector at the moment, would have added their voices of support for Ranil Wickremesinghe and their veto against others. Their emissaries in Colombo have welcomed the appointment of Mr. Wickremesinghe. No other appointment would have elicited such external enthusiasm.
Ranil’s Achilles heel is all local. He might have saved the President’s bacon externally, but on the domestic front they are each other’s albatross. Nonetheless, the national belief is that Ranil Wickremesinghe has stepped in or stepped up to save not Sri Lanka, but Gotabaya Rajapaksa from the ignominy of an abrupt exit or resignation. Objectively, that indeed is the case.
From his safe house at the Trincomalee naval base, the ousted Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa has already tweeted congratulations and best wishes to his successor. That is code for saying – we are relying on you for protection. On the other hand, and in the context of the main protest demand for the resignation of Gotabaya Rajapaksa as President, Ranil Wickremesinghe accepting appointment by the self-same President is a massive betrayal of the people and their protests.
In his first statement as Prime Minister, Mr. Wickremesinghe said, “I accepted the Prime Minister’s post to save the nation and to see that people of this country get three square meals while essential goods such as fuel, gas and electricity are available. I cannot do it alone and therefore I need international help. I also intend to obtain support of all MPs in Parliament to save the nation.” Or save the President?
With cynical equanimity, the Prime Minister went on to say that he would like to see the struggle at ‘GotaGoGama’ continue. “We will not lay our hands on ‘GotaGoGama’ in Galle Face,” he added. In other words, the new Prime Minister is allowing the protests to continue, including the demand for the President’s resignation, even as he is enabling the President to continue in office in spite of the calls for his resignation.
Who is being clever?
Who is being clever here, Ranil or Gota? Those in parliament may want to ask Mr. Sambanthar, the TNA leader, for a sacred analogy to this question in Tiruvasagam, the celebrated volume of Tamil bhakti hymns. Quite mundanely, is Gotabaya Rajapaksa being clever in roping Ranil Wickremesinghe to take over the economic cross and risk political crucifixion? Or Ranil Wickremesinghe in agreeing to be PM on the assumption that he can be the virtual President, and hoping for legacy glory by saving the economy from total collapse?
I do not agree with the suggestion that Gotabaya Rajapaksa is being clever in handing over the poisoned economic chalice to Ranil Wickremesinghe. I would argue that the President has been desperate and not clever in reaching out to Ranil Wickremesinghe to rescue his presidency. Inadvertently, the President is also feeding on Mr. Wickremesinghe’s well known hubris that he is the most capable of all parliamentarians in Sri Lanka. And Ranil’s apparent belief that he is Sri Lanka’s Churchill. There is a big difference, however, for Churchill was not a worming partyman, unlike Ranil, and Churchill was invited to be Prime Minister by national acclaim with parliamentary deference. Ranil Wickremesinghe has neither.
I have not come across any credible voice of support for the Gota-Ranil government. Everyone who has voiced an opinion has only condemned it. The exception of course is the stock market that bounced positively to RW’s appointment as PM. But the stock market is not Sri Lanka’s political barometer, and more so in the current protest environment.
The situation in parliament is also not different, with every political party other than the SLPP refusing to join the new government, or be part of the new cabinet led by Ranil Wickremesinghe. However, no political party is likely to defeat the government by bringing a no-confidence motion against it. On the other hand, every political party or group has indicated that it will be supporting government initiatives to address the economic crisis.
In other words, the Gota-Ranil government may survive by default – without its majority tested in parliament, and with opposition parties extending responsive co-operation in limited areas of government action. But this arrangement of government cannot go on indefinitely, cannot govern extensively, and it cannot pretend that it is somehow insulated from the protest politics outside parliament that is not going to abate until Gotabaya Rajapaksa resigns.
Protesters at Galle Face Green have recuperated after Monday and seem even more energized and organized than before. Emergency regulations and curfew hours are not going stop the protesters. While the police have been literally hollering out to protesters the consequences of breaking curfew rules, the military chief has sent a contrary signal with his statement to the media that “as long as the protestors at ‘GotaGoGama’ are peaceful, there will be no problem”! And the Prime Minister has given his word that he will allow ‘GotaGoGama’ to continue.
The protesters have formulated a set of demands for the President and the Prime Minister. While the organizers are being criticized for not being more exhaustive and not ethno-nationally inclusive in their demands, there is no mistaking the alpha and the omega of the demand agenda – the resignation of Gotabaya Rajapaksa and his administration. A related and demand is that following the resignation, an interim government must be established for a period not exceeding 18 months “to steer the nation onto the path of recovery.”
How will Ranil Wickremesinghe respond to these demands? Or how will he advise the President to respond? So far, there has been no indication of the details of the current arrangement. There is no indication if the appointment of Ranil Wickremesinghe, is an interim arrangement or if he and the President are planning to finish their permitted terms in office. Neither of them has said how long the President will remain in office, how long will Ranil be PM, and when will the parliamentary election be held?
Nor have they said anything about the ‘reform agenda,’ many versions of which have been circulating as part of the search for a constructive political response to the protests and their demands. Every political party and persona, including the President, got latched on to the 13 Proposal presented by the Bar Association of Sri Lanka. Now, no one is talking about it. The President and the Prime Minister have said nothing about it, and the President made no mention of it in his televised speech.
Former President Chandrika Kumaratunga has also presented a similar set of proposals to the political parties in parliament. Both proposals call for an interim government that will repeal of the 20th Amendment, restore an improved 19th Amendment, and abolish the Executive Presidency within a prescribed timeframe. The BASL proposal for the latter suggests 30 November 2022 as the deadline for the required constitutional amendment, and the abolition itself within 15 months. The BASL indicates 18 months as the duration for the interim government before parliamentary elections. The Kumaratunga proposal prescribes a maximum of six months, which may not be practical depending on what tasks are to be completed by the interim government.
When and how are Ranil Wickremesinghe and/or Gotabaya Rajapaksa responding to these and other proposals and, more importantly, the demands arising from protest politics? If either of them is thinking that Mr. Rajapaksa can continue as long as six months or 18 months as President, they are either daydreaming or they are not taking the protesters seriously. They can be cynical up to a point in allowing the protests to continue, on the one hand, and Gotabaya to continue as President on the other.
But such a cohabitation is both unnatural and unsustainable. One has to give way and it will have to be the President. Ranil Wickremesinghe will have to go too unless he publicly advises Gotabaya Rajapaksa that he should leave office within a specific timeframe, and that Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s only role as President now is to leave as President after an interim succession is put in place. For either man, there is nothing to be clever about in the current situation. Either you are honest and sincere, or you join Mahinda Rajapaksa in Trincomalee.