Should Ranil Wickremesinghe step down as Prime Minister?
Under the law and Sri Lanka’s Constitution, there is no reason why Ranil Wickremesinghe should step down as Prime Minister unless a vote of no confidence is passed in parliament. However, the numbers are not possible in Parliament even if the SLFP and JO join together. They will need significant defections from the UNP, though this is highly unlikely at this moment.
So, the more important question is whether the Premier should step down for the sake of UNP’s future? It is true the loss of Mr. Wickremesinghe’s “Mr. Clean” image after the bond scam – not seen doing enough development work at the grassroot level, not addressing the rising cost of living and not perceived to have acted to bring the corrupt to justice all contributed to the election defeat.
Having said that, Ranil Wickremesinghe was instrumental in forming the unity government in 2015 with the main purpose of passing the much-needed change such as social reforms, constitutional reforms and very importantly to revive the country out of the debt trap that the Rajapaksa government burdened on Sri Lanka. All these measures are not popular amongst the public and will take time to deliver the holistic benefits. They will come to fruition much later in Sri Lankan lives. In this light, having the local election merely three years after taking over the government is similar to having opened up a wound and not being able to finish treating it. In the eyes of the average voter, this is not seen and it is unlikely to fully redeem Wickremesinghe’s image.
In my opinion, Ranil Wickremesinghe and the UNP should continue with the Unity government and persists with their reforms in a speedy manner, further develop the good governance, investigate the wrong doings and bring the corrupt to justice whoever it may be. They need to do urgent development at the grass root level that will have a speedy impact on the cost of living and take necessary steps to avoid the looming economic crisis – a tall order for any party. However, if these are carried out in the next two years, Ranil and the UNP will be able to significantly improve their voter base from the present vote base of 32.61%.
The impact of the local government elections
The recent Local Government Election dealt a severe blow individually to both President Maithripala Sirisena and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe and to their two respective political parties, UPFA and UNP. The defeat paved the way for the major political comeback of former president Mahinda Rajapaksa. With SLPP securing 44.69% of the total poll, Mahinda Rajapaksa has re-emerged as a formidable player in Sri Lankan electoral politics just three years after he was ousted from power.
In hindsight, even with this development of Mahinda Rajapaksa as a persona independent of a recognized party as a significant force in Sri Lankan politics, the UNP will continue to benefit from this outcome as it will be able to realign its strategy and importantly have greater influence in the unity government. With SLFP just securing 13.38% of the vote base, the balance of power of the current unity government will significantly tilt in UNP’s favour. In time, the UNP will now be able to have a greater influence on both the president and the UPFA resulting in the ability to pass reforms speedier than the pace of the past three years.
Unsurprising to many, the SLPP did best in predominantly Sinhala-Buddhist districts and particularly in the rural areas. In contrast, the UNP performed better in the urban areas, and in the ethnically mixed areas. Contrary to popular belief that the UNP was unable to reach out to the Sinhala Buddhist nationalistic voters, the defeat was only partly due to the false propaganda smeared by SLPP that the UNP would give in to Eelam demands if they won the election. Primarily, it was a result of the inadequacy of the younger UNP parliamentarians to deliver at the grass root level such as providing housing, electricity, jobs and delivering better livelihoods to the common man. Instead, these young UNP politicians are perceived as the affluent Colombo elite enjoying luxury life with their Range Rover vehicles, entourages and the privileges of the high life with ignorance to the needs of the commoner. If nothing else, this election should serve as a wakeup call and a stark reminder of the work and commitment required of these young UNP parliamentarians.
With the strategic view of significant increasing their vote base in the next two years, the UNP strategy for their younger parliamentarians should manoeuvre to implementing short-term reforms that generate short-term gains, address the cost of living and address corruption. Young UNP parliamentarians must carry out genuine grass root development work addressing the ‘what’s-in-it-for-me’ of the common man and woman to shift perception and create that approachability that is currently lacking. Whilst many believe that UNP need to go hard on Sinhala Buddhist nationalistic lines to win elections, changing their party image to being humble to the common man and delivering on the basics at the grass root level will fill the UNP void.
The 2020 presidential election will be a proxy war fought between Mahinda and Ranil both throwing in their best player. This will be a hard fought battle and the outcome of this election will play a significant role in the destiny of Sri Lanka’s future.
The SLFP may either join hands with the SLPP and field in a president candidate together, though this is highly unlikely and the two parties will go separately. If this happens, Maithripala Sirisena most likely will contest as the presidential candidate for SLFP in 2020. His stand on being clean is severely hampered by his close association with the owner of Capital Maharaja Organisation and giving in to demands such as the procurement deal of the Russian warship deal and spectrum allocation. Maithripala Sirisena’s positioning to create a better society by restricting alcohol and tobacco would not appeal to the masses as much as the need of the hour, which is economic prosperity.
If SLPP does not join the SLFP, most likely Gotabaya Rajapaksa would represent SLPP as their presidential candidate. He is a formidable force to reckon with especially having the war victory medal under his belt. He is also popularly known as someone who gets things done. However, he is rather unpopular amongst the minorities especially the Tamils and Muslims. History dictates that no presidential election has been won without the support of the minorities and this will not be in his favour.
From the UNP’s perspective, most think it will be Ranil Wickremasinghe who will contest as he has been eyeing the elusive presidency job. Though ideally, the best for UNP may be to field in Mangala Samaraweera. Mangala Samaraweera is the possibly the strongest member in the UNP who can take on Gotabaya Rajapaksa. Mangala has all the ingredients in his favour – he is seen as a moderate liberal that will appeal to the minorities; he is from Matara, the heartland of South and has the common man’s touch; he does not have kids, which in the current era is favourable as he would not seem to build an empire to the benefit of their future benefit; a clean image and also someone who has consistently delivered. The most important characteristic that may have been forgotten is the fact that he walked out of the Rajapaksa’s camp in 2007 on principle against the wrong doings to humanity by the Rajapaksas. This was at a time when Rajapaksas’ popularity was all time high. This move showcases that he was not overwhelmed by power and hadn’t given in to their intimidation even with uncertainty looming over his future political career. His ethical morality surpassed the hunger for power and he strongly voiced against the wrongdoings by the Rajapaksa’s. These characteristics are the mark of a man who is fit to lead a nation. This is possibly the man who can turn UNP’s and Sri Lanka’s fortunes for the best. His past predicts that he would not hold back to take on the Rajapaksa’s and possibly the best suited candidate to eventually see it through.
Whoever wins the presidential election, their party will most likely win the general elections. Assuming Mangala Samaraweera from the UNP wins the presidency, Ranil Wickremesinghe will continue to be the premier and together they will steer Sri Lanka to great economic and social prosperity from 2020 to – 2030 – this could possibly turnout to be the golden era in Sri Lanka’s post-independence history.
The battle between Mahinda and Ranil is a hard fought one commencing from 2005 with Mahinda winning the first half of the battle from 2005 to 2015 and Ranil taking the second half from 2015 to 2030. It is not a case of who has the last laugh, but both will go down in history as one who eradicated terrorism and the latter who reformed Sri Lanka into a modern successful nation.