Sri Lanka’s new prime minister has his job cut out, has to prove his ‘legitimacy’
By N. Sathiya Moorthy
The unending political drama and unprecedented street violence culminating in unexplained nationwide arson, all of which marked the change of prime ministerial guard in Sri Lanka has flagged one too many questions with no convincing answers. Inherently, all Executive Powers of the State resides in incumbent Gotabaya Rajapaksa, until he works with a very eager Parliament to prune and transfer those powers to the Cabinet, of which too he is the Head, along with being the Head of State, Head of Government and of course, the Supreme Commander of the Armed Forces — but the new-comer has exploited his international stature, which the nation badly requires to aid and assistance, to make certain inroads as the other man looks the other way.
By swearing in former Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe as prime minister, President Gotabaya filled the vacancy caused at his instance. While questions remain about his decision to get predecessor Mahinda Rajapaksa, his own party boss and elder brother, to quit, Wickremesinghe’s choice is the best bet under the circumstances for the nation’s failing economy, apolitically speaking. Mahinda’s exit was marked by unprecedented violence, both by groups loyal to him, and retaliatory violence by unidentified ‘common people’ and unidentifiable (?) rioters, who set close to 40 homes of ruling party MPs and other officials, on fire. Included in the list was the Rajapaksas’ ancestral home and Mahinda’s house in Kurunagela.
No, Ranil Wickremesinghe is not a great economist, nor is Sri Lanka’s forex situation in a quickly-redeemable mode that the new entrant with years of experience in general political administration, to help recover faster than anyone else in his place. But he is a better global mascot for the ailing/failing(?) nation that Western nations, especially those that were not enthused with other choices for prime minister, may extend assistance in cash and kind. Which is Sri Lanka’s real need of the hour — not even political changes and constitutional reforms.
Already, envoys of four major nations that have been traditionally doing big business with Sri Lanka, namely, India and Japan, China and the US, have met him. There is already talk of aid-giver nations forming a consortium of sorts, as used to be the case for most Third World nations (including India) at one point in time. Whether China will be a part of such a consortium, if formed, is beside the point. But China has already committed to push Sri Lanka’s loan application to the IMF, the kind of diplomatic commitment that India exhibited when Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman met with IMF managing director, Kristalina Georgieva, exclusively for the purpose.
The Sri Lankan civil society that had lent support to what is made out to be a spontaneous weeks-long peaceful popular movement for the exit of all Rajapaksa brothers, starting with President Gotabaya, has declared that it would continue with the protests in this regard. So have the political Opposition, and three ‘Independent Group(s)’ 40 MPs in a House of 225-member Assembly, whose exit had triggered the political crisis in the first place. Initially, all political parties that are not in the ruling Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP) coalition had questioned Wickremesinghe’s legitimacy, but his sixth prime ministerial term having become a reality, some of them are ready to consider ‘conditional/outside’ support to the government without joining what was propped up as an ‘interim, national government’.
The critics, political and otherwise, have a point as President Gotabaua swears by the 6.9-million popular vote that he garnered in 2019, for poohing demands for his exit and for justifying his continuance in office. Wickremesinghe fails the popularity test, as his United National Party (UNP) did not win even one of the 196 ‘elected seats’ in Parliament. Despite being party Leader, he had to fight for the lone seat allotted under the ‘National List’, based on nationwide vote shares. Already, Opposition Leader Sajith Premadasa, whose Samagi Jana Balawagaye (SJB) broke away from the UNP ahead of the parliamentary polls, has expressed the hope that the Supreme Court would render justice (implying they would move the judiciary).
For now, the security forces, reporting to President Gotabaya, have let the re-creation of the gutted-down ‘Gota Go Gama’ protest site in capital Colombo’s Galle Face Green beach-front even in the mid of emergency regulations. Though it is not in his domain until the Constitution is amended as promised by incumbent Gotabaya, Prime Minister Wickremesinghe, exploiting his indispensability, has announced that the protests would be allowed to continue. It remains to be seen if the protests then would lose steam as the government seems to have concluded or if it would muster greater vigour.
Going a step further and taking the punch out of the ‘people’s movement’, Sri Lanka’s very own ‘Arab Spring’ up to a point, Wickremesinghe has also formed a committee of government officials, headed by an UNP colleague, to ensure the comforts of and supplies to the protestors at ‘Galle Face Green’ water-front. Even before the formation of the Cabinet, into which the President has since inducted four of his own party men, all of them veterans, Wickremesinghe officially deputed four of his party-men to head teams to look after food, fuel, medicine and other essential supplies, which had angered the people.
In legal and constitutional terms, there is not much the new prime minister has to answer for. Yet, going by the predecessor’s experience, President Gotabaya could deflect — or, assumed he had — all the public anger against his leadership in the light of the current economic crisis, to get Prime Minister Mahinda alone to quit. More importantly, the President (alone) has to deliver on his purported promise to ensure parliamentary majority for the prime minister of his choice. Though an experienced warrior, this time round, Wickremesinghe’s manipulative skills have limited use and application.
After Monday’s (9) violence that sullied Mahinda’s image even more, as early rioters were identified with him, it is unclear how the ruling Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP) parliamentary group is split – if at all. For now, both Mahinda and his one-time ministerial son, Namal Rajapaksa, have tweeted their good wishes to the new prime minister. A spokesman for the SLPP, has claimed all party MPs would back all parliamentary votes in the government’s favour. No one, especially from the Mahinda camp, has contested the claim.
This week will witness the deputy speaker’s election and also a vote on the Opposition’s no-confidence motion (NCM) against President Gotabaya. The one against the Mahinda government has lapsed with his resignation, but the new prime minister will be in the unenviable position to defend a president with whom he has worked only for a few days. The multiple opposition parties — of which there is no dearth — will use the NCM debate to press their case for Gotabaya’s exit and also to challenge the prime minister’s ‘legitimacy’ — politically and morally more than under the Constitution. The statute gives President Gotabaya the power to appoint a prime minister of his choice.
In both the votes, the choice of the 40 ‘Independent MPs’ would be keenly watched. At least two of these groups have declined ministerial positions, for now. There is no news about the blue-blooded ‘rebels’ who alone had actually left the SLPP as a party. In an earlier election for the deputy speaker, the SLPP and the 40 MPs had voted together, for a common candidate, 148-65. That was close to the two-thirds majority the government had before the Mahinda exit and the ‘Monday Mayhem’.
Before turning full attention to the economy, forex and other aspects of public administration that have suffered very badly in the aftermath of the economic crisis and the consequent political speculation, the new government (again under the president’s direct watch) has to restore public confidence in aspects where possible. This may be an easier task than convincing domestic constituencies, but the former could hold the key to the latter, in the second phase.
On the one hand, there is an urgent need to restore the confidence of parliamentarians, political parties and their activists in the Sri Lankan State’s ability and willingness to protect them. This follows from the death of a ruling party MP in Monday’s rioting, of which he was a part – and more so from what looks like targeted arson that destroyed the homes of ruling party politicians within hours. Indications are that the MPs are scared to step out fearing for their lives, and also step into Parliament, after a previous experience when agitating university students blocked all ways out of the complex. Reminiscent of the forgettable JVP insurgencies and the long shadow of LTTE terrorism through four decades until the last one, the police have to now provide a six-member team for the security of every MP.
The people’s confidence in law enforcement has to be restored even more after goons identified with Mahinda Rajapaksa went on a rampage in at least two Colombo venues, including the main ‘Go Gota Gama’, or village in Sinhala. While a local court has barred Mahinda, son Namal and a host of others, including a former minister, from leaving the country, the police investigations, if any, into the two episodes, is yet to report any progress. If delayed, the arson cases especially could produce little evidence to identify the mode, method and men. Footages are freely available of the men who started it all in the name of their support for Mahinda.
On the economic front, the government will have to continue with the current ship-to-mouth existence until the forex flow improves substantially, whichever way. But giving the people the confidence that they are not going to go hungry and that there won’t be any starvation deaths, may help soften public hurt and anger, against the government, the ruling party and the political class as a whole. Prime Minister Ranil’s presence alone is capable of doing it at this juncture, with his perceived ability to expand the supplier-basket beyond the Indian neighbour, which alone has been doing so thus far.
There is a need to ensure that lost jobs are restored and rumours of impending shortages are quelled by flooding the market with products, at affordable prices. It is not known if Wickremesinghe would stick to the declaration of (former) Finance Minister Ali Sabry that they are going to present a new budget, restoring the old taxation and tax-payers list, which Gotabaya had pruned heavily on arrival. Given the circumstances, the government should make such restoration less painful and less arbitrary.
It is only when such conditions are created can the new government hope to successfully negotiate with the IMF for the applied assistance. At $4 billion, the IMF aid by itself may not help tied over the forex crisis beyond a few months. Sri Lanka is going to need such facilities for years, if not decades, from wherever. It is here, that Wickremesinghe’s idea of an aid consortium, which he has possibly dusted from his memory, would help.
In between, only by restoring peace, law and order and overall normalcy, can the government hope for the return of foreign tourists, a major forex earner for the country. Forex is also required to import cloth for value-addition as finished dress, another export earner. There is the ubiquitous tea export, which too suffered following the Gotabaya’s messed-up overnight shift to ‘organic fertilisers’ without adequate education, acceptance and stocks.
None of it is impossible with the right leader at the right place at the right or wrong time, as one perceives it. Ranil Wickremesinghe fits the bill just now, whatever be the results. For such achievements, whether he is behind it or not, Wickremesinghe also has to curtail his temptation to get cross with his president, as happened during his last two innings, under President Chandrika Bandaranaike-Kumaratunga (2001-04) and President Mithripala Sirisena (2015-19), the latter his own choice for the job!
-N. Sathiya Moorthy is a policy analyst and commentator, based in Chennai. He can be contacted on email@example.com. This article was originally featured on firstpost.com