May 2023

The die is cast

Neville de Silva  assesses how far Sri Lanka’spresident, unelected by the people, will be prepared to go in his quest to become an elected one

Sri Lanka’s stand-in president, Ranil Wickremesinghe, is no Julius Caesar. But he is ready to cross his own Rubicon – as he must. For time is running out fast for him after almost 50 years in politics, as heslowly nudges towardshis 75th birthday.

Just a few days before Sri Lanka’s biggest traditional festival, the Sinhala and Tamil New Year in mid-April, President Wickremesinghe made his move. Not that political observers and social media were not already speculating about his political future; it was justthat the decision was made publicsooner than most had expected.

At a discussion with members of some of the country’s minor opposition parties, Wickremesinghe broke the news that he would contest the next presidential election due around September-October next year.

Right now, he is in place to complete the five-year term of President Gotabaya Rajapaksa who, though popularly-elected in November 2019, was unceremoniously ejected from office after unprecedented months-long mass protests demanding his resignation forced him to flee the countrylast July and send in his resignation from Singapore.

It was a curious turn in Sri Lankan politics that brought Ranil Wickremesinghe to where he is today. If the voting public, in August 2020, had spurned Wickremesinghe at elections, and did so decisively when his United National Party (UNP) lost every seat it contested, including his own, it was his arch political enemy that installed him in power.

Ranil Wickremesinghe (left) and Gotabaya Rajapaksa
ALLIES: Ranil Wickremesinghe (l) and Gotabaya Rajapaksa have helped each other politically when needed

Sri Lanka’s once most powerful political family, the Rajapaksas – who until early last year felt safely ensconced in the presidency and parliament – turned to Wickremesinghe to rescue them from an enraged people and an economy on the verge of collapse.

In April the Rajapaksa regime defaulted on its debt payments for the first time since independence in 1948 and announced it was bankrupt. Such a fall from grace to disgrace was not something eventhe Rajapaksa family could survive, despite all the manoeuvres of the president and his bunch of immature advisers, handpicked by Gotabaya.

As public resentment mounted,President Gotabaya called in early May for the resignation of his elder brother and prime minister, Mahinda Rajapaksa, followed by the cabinet led by other Rajapaksa siblings. Gotabaya’s choices were limited.Anyone chosen from within the ruling Rajapaksa-managed SLPP (or Pohottuwa, as the party is called) that dominated parliament would only have further enraged an already rebellious public.

The Rajapaksa regime defaulted on its debt payments for the first time since independence

President Gotabaya quickly consulted opposition political leaders to fill the premiership so that he could send the government down the river while he stayed safely – he hoped – on the bank.

But with some ignoring the offer and others either hesitant ordragging their feet over it, Gotabaya quickly turned to Ranil Wickremesinghe, who had managed to return to parliament on his party’s National List, which allowed the UNP one seat calculated on the percentage of votes it had garnered at the August 2020 parliamentary elections.

In July, within two months of becoming prime minister, he was catapulted to the presidency when Gotabaya resigned and parliament was left to elect an interim president to serve the rest of Gotabaya’s term, as the constitution dictated.

With the SLPP dominant in parliament and Wickremesinghe having been tapped by the Rajapaksas to serve out the remaining two-and-a-half years, he had got to the top of the totem by an utterly unexpected route.

Collective punishment is used to silence dissent

Wickremesingheneeds to attract MPs from other parties, especially the SJB

It has been claimed by Wickremesinghe supporters and some politically non-committed observers that, with his long experience in political life and governments in power, he was best suited to fit the bill at this critical stage in Sri Lanka’s history.

But others claim there is more to it than that. Mahinda Rajapaksa and Ranil Wickremesinghe are the two longest serving parliamentarians in harness today. Mahinda entered parliament in 1970 from the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP), then led by Sirima Bandaranaike, the world’s first woman prime minister.Wickremesinghe did so in 1977 from the UNP, led by his uncle Junius Richard Jayewardene, who was elevated as the country’s first executive president through a new constitution adopted the next year.

They say that both, coming as they do from a political class with family backgrounds that go way back to the days before or around independence, have had a close and long-standing relationship and have helped each other when needed.

The Rajapaksas expect Ranil Wickremesinghe to look after their family interests and pave the way for Mahinda’s son Namal to pick up the baton of state power when the time is considered ripe. This might be when an irate public have forgotten – and perhaps forgiven – the Rajapaksas’ political indiscretions and malfeasance that some strongly believe is largely responsible for the country’s unprecedented mess.

It is scant wonder, then, that critics have renamed Ranil ‘Wickremesinghe Rajapaksa’.

Sagara Kariyawasam
STRONG SUPPORTER: SLPP party secretary and MP Sagara Kariyawasam

But Wickremesinghe’s sudden announcement of his intended candidature has more than ruffled feathers in sections of the strongly-Rajapaksa SLPP, which suspects that the man they elevated to power in parliament to serve the rest of Gotabaya’s term is preparing for the long haul – that is, at least until 2029, when the next five-year presidential term ends after the 2024 elections.

A few days after Wickremesinghe’s intentions were made public, the general secretary of the SLPP told the media that the party would soon announce its candidate for the presidency. He even mentioned that Basil Rajapaksa, one of the siblings and a former finance minister, would be an ideal candidate.

Dropping Basil’s name into the pot might seem more to stir the political decoction than for real. Basil Rajapaksa is a US citizen with a home in Los Angeles.The constitution forbids him from being a voter, MP or holding public office. He would have to renounce his citizenship, as Gotabaya did to contest the presidency, if he intends to run.

But Basil Rajapaksa is hardly likely to do that unless he is assured of winning. And who in the SLPP, including his strongest supporter, party secretary and MP Sagara Kariyawasam, would have the gumption to take that risk?

Wickremesinghe’s stock is now high because he negotiated a $2.9bn bailout deal with the IMF – the 17th in the country’s history – that would open the doors for new loans from multilateral agencies, friendly governments and international lenders at a time nobody would give Sri Lanka a dollar.

Although the IMF has laid down a string of tough ‘conditionalities’, the impact of which will be felt in the coming months and years, Wickremesinghe is credited with lowering the prices of petrol, cooking gas, some domestic commodities and ending the days-long queuesfor these essentials.

The recent New Year festivities were more like in the old days than in the last few years. This earned Wickremesinghe kudos from sections of the public and created the impression that better times lie ahead.

Still, despite his six stints as prime minister, the jewel in the crown as popularly-elected president has eluded him. Now is his final throw of the dice. But increasing support from the country’s upper crust, hoping to prosper under the neoliberal economic mantra welded together by the IMF and Wickremesinghe policies, is not enough to win votes at a national election, especially after the UNP’s disastrous performance in August 2020.

On the one hand, his future intentions have raised concerns within some in the SLPP that he is trying to cut adrift from the Rajapaksa party that provides the ballast for his survival through parliament by trying to cause rifts in the party.

On the other, he needs to attract MPs from other parties, especially the opposition leader Sajith Premadasa’s SJB, which consists largely of former UNP members who broke away,unwilling to continue under Ranil’s leadership.

Even if he succeeds in winning over MPs, some looking for a few dollars more and others for ministerial positions, it might not be enough to win electoral support from a public that is increasingly agitated over President Wickremesinghe’sphysical handling of peaceful protestorsand attacks on demonstrations from the time he assumed office.

His proposed new Anti-Terrorism Bill, which has evoked widespread condemnation here and abroad, is seen as Wickremesinghe’s crudest attempt to use the police and security forces to crush dissent and trample on fundamental rights, including peaceful assembly and media freedom.

How far President Wickremesinghe goes in his quest for a more permanent term will depend not only on how far the IMF deal strengthens his hand on the tiller but how much longer he is ready to play Rambo against his own people.

Neville de Silva is a veteran Sri Lankan journalist who held senior roles in Hong Kong at The Standard and worked in London for Gemini News Service. He has been a correspondent for the foreign media including the New York Times and Le Monde. More recently he was Sri Lanka’s Deputy High Commissioner in London