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Sri Lanka’s Persistent Prime Minister

The dramatic events of last week appear to have effectively completed the chain of events that first began on April 21, 2019. Exactly three years and three weeks to the day since the Easter attacks took place, the President who rode to power on the back of it had to swear in the very same Prime Minister he sent home because of it. The irony of ironies is that 6.9 million voted for Gotabaya Rajapaksa to save the country from Ranil Wickremesinghe, and now Wickremesinghe has been handed back the reins by the very same Rajapaksa to actually save the nation—most certainly a karmic turn of events of cosmic proportions.

Just last week our parting line in the Editorial read: “Historic mistakes call for historic change. That is what the country is crying out for.” While we had our ear to the ground and pulse on the people in making that call, unlike the administration at the time that had all the state-of-the-art intelligence apparatus at its disposal, little did we anticipate that that ‘historic change’ would unfold the very next day, Monday, May 9, 2022. It was the day on which for the first time in the democratic history of Sri Lanka, ‘people power’ resulted in not only the resignation but also the hasty retreat of a serving Prime Minister and entire government.

The resignation itself created more history as it was the first time that two consecutive Cabinets of Ministers had resigned within the space of a month. The events that unfolded on that fateful Monday when David turned on Goliath showed just how much the former Prime Minister and his administration had misjudged the mood of the people. While some described the people’s protest movement as a carnival and others as just noise that would eventually go away, it was the administration that had to “run for life” as described by international media, in the face of ordinary people taking upon themselves the task of serving a dose of the same medicine that they had endured for years. As a result, violent pro-government henchmen and women who had attended a meeting at Temple Trees on the morning of May 9 found themselves dumped in the filthy Beira waters while the vehicles that transported them burned in the vicinity and other parts of the country. It was a lesson to be remembered for an administration that had long accustomed itself to the doctrine of ‘might is right’.

Left without a prime minister and government for three full days at a time when the economy was on edge, the President in all likelihood was forced to make his choice quickly, and that turned out to be the much-reviled Yahapalanaya Prime Minister, whom the people had comprehensively sent home at the last poll. Even though the President had the opportunity to redeem himself and heed the call of the youth at Galle Face to appoint a younger prime minister and professional cabinet, it appears he preferred the known devil to the unknown and the protesting youth in the end got a 73-year-old, five-time former Prime Minister in response to their month-long agitation braving the harshest elements as well as a marauding mob.

It appears that the biggest mistake the President and former Prime Minister made was to miscalculate the pulse of the people and the Galle Face ‘Aragalaya,’ which in fact was only the tip of the iceberg that represented the people’s struggle for change. Owing to an intelligence failure of Easter Sunday proportions—unlike the real Titanic which hit an iceberg by accident—the Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP) Titanic hit the Galle Face iceberg by design, and the rest is now history. However, it appears that learning from mistakes is not the forte of the ill-fated captain, who has proceeded to once again completely ignore the pulse of the people in appointing a new prime minister, as a result of which he will find the going getting tougher on the political front despite the possibility of the new PM pulling a rabbit out of the bag on the economic front.

Not so long ago when the first cracks began to appear, President Rajapaksa made an interesting speech which is now widely circulating on social media. The President offering a solution to Sri Lanka’s perennial economic issues, the authors of which have routinely been politicians on either side of the divide, stated that if he does not fulfil the promises he made and the people eventually vote him out at the next poll, not to bring back those who have previously been voted out for the same reason. He urged the people to look for fresh, new talent. But having said that, he has once again reverted to his trademark reverse gear and done what he himself told the people not to do.

Be that as it may, rightly or wrongly the President has made his choice with regard to the Prime Minister, but it is Parliament that will have the final say on the matter as Wickremesinghe will have to prove that he commands the confidence of the house with at least 113 MPs backing him. The acid test will come no sooner than when Parliament reconvenes on the 17th, with two items that call for a vote already on the agenda.

The first is the election of a deputy speaker following the Ranjith Siyambalapitiya fiasco where a whole day was wasted for nothing in the end. The other matter is the vote of no confidence against the President submitted by the TNA which, on the request of the Speaker, has been reworded as an “expression of displeasure” against the President. This is when things are bound to get interesting because Wickremesinghe is already on record stating that he will vote for the motion against the President. The nation will be watching whether the newly acquired office will result in Wickremesinghe changing his tune in which case it will be confirmation that he too is part of the turncoat clan—the likes of which have been the bane of this nation.

To be fair, the President did consult the main Opposition Samagi Jana Balawegaya (SJB) with a view to offering the post before settling on Wickremesinghe. But to the credit of the SJB, it did what the main Opposition party was expected to do by consulting its stakeholders and finally deciding to not waver in its commitment to the people’s struggle. Even though the SJB leader was lambasted by some sections of the party for turning down the offer initially and then accepting it once the President in an address to the nation agreed to some key demands including replacing the 20th Amendment with the 19th and abolition of the Executive Presidency, it later transpired that the President had demanded two-thirds of the slots, in a 20-member Cabinet, for SLPP members. As a result the SJB now holds the moral high ground in calling for the President’s exit.

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So far Wickremesinghe too appears to share the same sentiments with regard to the incumbent Executive but has chosen to be more diplomatic in his approach to the matter. When questioned by reporters after being sworn in on whether he would allow the Galle Face struggle to continue, he had no hesitation in emphasising that it must go on, hinting that the President must go—in true Wickremesinghe style encouraging others to do the dirty work for him. This is the type of political cunning that has enabled Wickremesinghe to stump the competition time and again.

Being the strategist that he is, Wickremesinghe cannot be unaware of the possibility of a premature presidential departure, bowing to the will of the people, in which eventuality it would be him that has everything to gain. As per the Constitution, when the presidency falls vacant for whatever reason, it will be the prime minister that will fill the vacancy for the remainder of the President’s tenure with the concurrence of Parliament. If and when things come to that, Parliament will also have to find a replacement prime minister from among the remaining MPs, which in turn will open the door for the present Opposition leader to stake claim for it.

But first things first: Wickremesinghe will have to overcome the Herculean challenge before him in Parliament with almost all Opposition political parties refusing to work with him even though some have provided a vague assurance of conditional support on an issue-by-issue basis. What has drawn the ire of the Opposition parties is the President’s arbitrary decision to go with Wickremesinghe who does not have a mandate even to be in Parliament. At the last general election, the UNP managed just 250,000 votes and did not win a single seat outright. The UNP’s only seat came via the National List under the Proportional Representation electoral system. To make matters worse, the party could not decide on a nominee for that seat for almost a year. However, in just 11 months since taking up the seat last June, Wickremesinghe has ended up becoming Prime Minister for a record sixth time, foxing even the most pessimistic of observers.

However, the fact remains that Wickremesinghe has never been able to complete a full term in all of the previous five instances, which goes to indicate just how vulnerable he can be in his latest avatar. It was also his leadership style of surrounding himself with a few cohorts while ignoring the rest that led to the creation of the SJB. How he plans to work with a Cabinet essentially made of members from his political nemesis, only time will tell.

The argument raised by the Opposition of a lack of a mandate for its boycott of Wickremesinghe’s proposed Cabinet certainly merits consideration, given the fact that the President can no longer claim a people’s mandate even though he keeps referring to 6.9 million votes received at the last poll, while his nominee for PM never had a mandate to begin with. As a result, the country currently has a President and Prime Minister who both lack a valid mandate, leading to the accusation of completely disregarding the peoples’ wishes and making a mockery of the democratic process.

The dangers of ignoring the will of the people were amply displayed by what transpired on Monday. The new political equation has done nothing to mitigate the volatile situation and if the stance of the clergy—which includes the Buddhist and Catholic hierarchy—as well as the Opposition parties is anything to go by, what we have on our hands is a powder keg that can flare up at the slightest provocation.

On the plus side, Wickremesinghe brings to the table what was inherently lacking in the former administration—a good rapport with international stakeholders. Already a number of key bilateral partners have called on him and expressed support, with some urgent financing already said to be in the pipeline. At the end of the day, Wickremesinghe’s task is limited to just two things, the first being to revive the economy and get rid of the queues. How he gets about it is up to him and how he gathers his team to go about the task is also up to him as already evidenced by the manner in which he has appointed those rejected by the people to key committees. His second task is to prepare the country for a poll, which at the moment is the only way that can usher in the political stability that is key to bringing about economic stability.

While congratulating the Prime Minister, we would be failing in our duty if we do not bring to his attention the fact that people are watching his every move. Going against the sentiments of the people like his predecessor will result in his fate too being sealed, either in a bunker or the Beira.

(By arrangement with www.themorning.lk)