Expert Speak Raisina Debates
Published on May 13, 2022 Updated 7 Days ago
Would the newly appointed Prime Minister, Ranil Wickremesinghe, be able to steer Sri Lanka away from the economic and political crisis?
Riots, resignations, and resurrections amidst Sri Lanka’s national crisis This piece is part of the series, The Unfolding Crisis in Sri Lanka.
The second week of May 2022 has been the most decisive one in the Gotabaya Rajapaksa presidency in Sri Lanka. From politically-motivated violent attacks on peaceful protestors to large-scale destruction of property belonging to politicians, Sri Lanka saw one Prime Minister resign and another being resurrected from the not too distant past. International concern has been growing in the last several weeks with calls for stability, economic recovery, and the permitting of peaceful protests in keeping with democratic standards, given Sri Lanka’s position as the oldest democracy in Asia. The protests have been hailed as unique, and meaningful, resulting in the dismissal of inefficient bureaucrats, and incompetent politicians, but the main call remains unanswered—the resignation of the President. Placed as he is at the helm of the state, ‘the buck stops with him and the complete ruination of the economy remains his responsibility. Rajapaksa has now turned to a five-time former Prime Minister, Ranil Wickremesinghe to salvage the economy and country from its moment of peril brought on owing to ill-advised policies and misguided leadership. The call for Rajapaksa to relinquish power heightened with the worst economic crisis to hit the island nation, as the cost of living continues to spiral out of control, foreign reserves drop to negligible amounts, and people face shortages of fuel, electricity, and essential medicines. Rajapaksa’s gamble in bringing in a defeated politician who failed to secure his own constituency and only entered the Parliament due to a national list seat provided to his party is seen as a face-saving measure, in a week that started with widespread violence. The violence began when a coterie of thugs loyal to Mahinda Rajapaksa, the then Prime Minister gathered at his official residence in Colombo. Upon being roused up, they were set loose on innocent, peaceful protestors at two sites, where protestors were calling for the Prime Minister and President to step down.

Rajapaksa’s gamble in bringing in a defeated politician who failed to secure his own constituency and only entered the Parliament due to a national list seat provided to his party is seen as a face-saving measure, in a week that started with widespread violence.

The attacks resulted in several being severely wounded and admitted to hospital, and an immediate public outburst of rage againstate-sponsored thugs. In the ensuing hours, angry citizens took to the streets across the country attacking and destroying the property of several key government figures. Dozens of gas cylinders were found in the homes of politicians, amidst a national shortage, while hundreds of bags of fertiliser were also found hidden in their homes, though the government had adopted a disastrous agriculture policy of banning fertiliser. The declaration of curfew across the island saw a curbing of violence with the military called in to the keep the peace, and avoid incidents of racial violence promoted by groups, keen on creating a communal backlash as seen on several occasions in the past. In less than 24 hours, Mahinda Rajapaksa resigned, the Cabinet remained dissolved, and Sri Lanka had only the president at the top, trying to form a new government. Wickremesinghe, the newly appointed Prime Minister, is a politician who has worked under all presidents from 1977 onwards, except Mahinda Rajapaksa. From experience it is evident that the President-Prime Minister relationship ran sour with all, except perhaps the first president under whom he served as premier, that being D. B. Wijetunge, who was from his own party. The relationship with the other two, notably Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunge and Maithripala Sirisena, were unsuccessful ventures. Wijetunge, a meek and mild senior statesman was serving the remainder of the presidential term of Ranasinghe Premadasa, following his assassination in May 1993. Wickremesinghe, who had been Leader of the House was seen as the young and dynamic leader, who would be able to lead the party having been groomed by J. R. Jayewardene, and was made Prime Minister. However, the United National Party had been in power since 1977, and the need for change was evident with much discontent sweeping across the country, thus, his tenure was brief. The presidential election scheduled in 1994 should have been Wickremesinghe’s first attempt to clinch the top seat, but an earlier contest within the party to determine the Leader of the Opposition, following the defeat of the party at the General Election, resulted in Gamini Dissanayake, a contemporary, who had left the party and rejoined later, winning the internal ballot. Dissanayake went on to lead the Opposition for a few months and become the party’s presidential candidate. He was assassinated days before the election, whereupon his widow was fielded but did not win.

The declaration of curfew across the island saw a curbing of violence with the military called in to the keep the peace, and avoid incidents of racial violence promoted by groups, keen on creating a communal backlash as seen on several occasions in the past.

Wickremesinghe’s second attempt as the Prime Minister was in a cohabitation arrangement with Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunge following the December 2001 General Election which was won by the coalition he led. From launching a peace process with the LTTE, to holding peace talks in capitals overseas, Wickremesinghe was instrumental in engineering a split in the rebel group, that would finally be beneficial to his successors. Despite the progress, three of his ministers were sacked by Kumaratunga whilst he was in Washington meeting President George W. Bush, owing to her disagreement with his style of governance. The troubled relationship from December 2001 to April 2004 ended with Wickremesinghe’s defeat at the General Election, and Kumaratunga securing sufficient seats to form her own government. The third occasion of cohabitation was in January 2015 with Maithripala Sirisena, who Wickremesinghe worked hard to bring into office, but several factors led to the President and Prime Minister going their own ways. The ‘constitutional coup’ that occurred in 2018 saw Sirisena sack Wickremesinghe and swear in Mahinda Rajapaksa, who Sirisena had defeated at the earlier Presidential election in 2015. The short-lived arrangement ended with the reappointment of Wickremesinghe, but the devastating Easter Sunday attacks in 2019 revealed yawning security gaps and deep divisions in the Sri Lankan hierarchy. Wickremesinghe and Sirisena parted ways thereafter as the presidential election in November 2019 saw the end of the Sirisena presidency and Gotabaya Rajapaksa secured power. The latest attempt at cohabitation in May 2022, sees Wickremesinghe being sworn in for the sixth time, but he is without a single parliamentarian of his own to back him, and instead is forced to rely on the support of the President’s party, to garner support and forge ahead. The United National Party was only able to secure one national list seat at the General Election in August 2020, and the seat was kept vacant till June 2021, when Wickremesinghe finally occupied it. As a veteran politician, it is creditable that with a single seat, he has been able to secure the second most important position of power in the island, but the relationship with the President remains a cause for concern.

The short-lived arrangement ended with the reappointment of Wickremesinghe, but the devastating Easter Sunday attacks in 2019 revealed yawning security gaps and deep divisions in the Sri Lankan hierarchy.

Whilst Kumaratunga and Sirisena proved their mettle in not cowing down to Wickremesinghe, a clash was a natural occurrence. On both those occasions, Wickremesinghe commanded parliamentary majorities which enabled him to wield power though he ended up on the losing side eventually. In the current context, while the President might look upon him as a veteran in the field, the majority in Parliament is wielded by other parties, and Wickremesinghe has to rely on their support which could be withdrawn at any given instant. This sense of uncertainty will be Wickremesinghe’s Damocles’ sword. It is confounded when those demanding the resignation of the President do not see hope in the re-introduction of a rejected politician. Amidst declarations of reducing the powers of the Executive Presidency and strengthening the Parliament, to abolishing it completely, Wickremesinghe sits at a decisive point. From proving his ability to rule legitimately to carrying forward that majority, turning the economy around, and circumventing public displeasure as taxes rise and the cost of living continues to skyrocket, the greatest task would be avoiding conflicts with the President whose powers he would eventually be reducing. Failure to do so will see a repetition of history. Known for his international connectivity, Wickremesinghe started his parliamentary career as Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs in the late 1970s and ensured that his international profile grew in the ensuing decades. His close affinity to India, the European Union, Japan, Singapore, and the United throughout his political journey, has resulted in his drawing strength from these countries, especially when holding the office of Prime Minister. To address and overcome the current economic crisis, it is to these countries and groupings that Wickremesinghe is expected to turn. The East Container Terminal of the Colombo Port, which ruffled feathers with India and Japan, and contributed to the souring of relations between Wickremesinghe and Sirisena, was addressed by the subsequent decision to bring in the Adani Ports-led consortium to the West Terminal. While India has contributed immensely in the financial arena, helping Sri Lanka tide over turbulent times, the advent of Wickremesinghe would be hailed as an opportunity to deepen relations and ensure closer connectivity.

Operationalisation of the Singapore-Sri Lanka Free Trade Agreement, which ran into objections from President Sirisena during their earlier power-sharing period, is expected to get a boost as Sri Lanka looks to Singapore as a key partner and gateway to South East Asia.

The earlier administration’s decision in 2020 to snub the American’s offer of funding of US$ 480 million through the Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC), and the decision to stop the Japanese monorail project are likely to be revisited, although the current economic crisis does not allow the country to look at further infrastructure development in the short to medium term. America and Japan would be hopeful of seeing a return to more focused connectivity which suffered, especially in relation to the former, owing to the attempt to move away from the West, despite America being Sri Lanka’s largest export destination. Similarly, the European Union is expected to increase support, as was seen in 2017 during Wickremesinghe’s earlier tenure, when GSP+ was returned once again. Operationalisation of the Singapore-Sri Lanka Free Trade Agreement, which ran into objections from President Sirisena during their earlier power-sharing period, is expected to get a boost as Sri Lanka looks to Singapore as a key partner and gateway to South East Asia. Despite his intentions, and the impact he could have on Sri Lanka, his interactions in the domestic political arena are crucial. Three factors remain pivotal—his working relationship with the incumbent President; the support he enjoys in Parliament; and his acceptance by the masses, chiefly represented by those protesting across the country. Wickremesinghe might have gained power and set precedents, but his position is unenviable given the tightrope he has to walk. He could make history by ensuring Sri Lanka’s economic recovery and therefore lengthen his political journey, or he could be relegated to history and have his career cut short once again. While concern exists over his closeness to the Rajapaksa family and his alleged non-interest in bringing them to book, it is his political action in this term, which is hoped would be different from previous ones that would determine his future and the future of Sri Lanka.
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Contributor

George I. H. Cooke

George I. H. Cooke

George is a Diplomatic Historian whose main areas of research include foreign policy diplomacy regionalism and integration.He is a Senior Lecturer Department of International Relations ...

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