For the nation’s senior-most parliamentarian, Sri Lanka’s new President Ranil Wickremesinghe has his job cut out. Rather, he had cut out much of his term as the prime minister since mid-May, during the nation’s most trying times in post-Independence history, especially on the economic front.
Now, he has to stitch them all together to give it a final shape and present it to the same nation where unthinking protesters are still asking him to quit for the sake of their protesting and his quitting.
Nothing explains the positivity of Ranil’s induction as interim president till nation-wide elections before next year end than the double-quick IMF statement that they are (now) ready to take the ‘bail-out’ package for the starved and stifled economy in equally quick time. It has greater meaning for Sri Lanka, as the cash-rich West is said to be waiting for the IMF report/action before coming up with their own aid and assistance for the the short, medium, and long terms.
India, the only nation to have cared for Sri Lanka and Sri Lankans through the past months of forex crisis and food-and-fuel shortages, among others, too has indicated that it would now play a ‘supporting role’ after the IMF takes over the process.
External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar said as much in the all-party meeting to discuss the Sri Lankan crisis, on the eve of the Sri Lankan presidential vote.
The high-voltage election ended up almost as a damp squib, with Ranil winning very comfortably, 134-82-3 in a 225-member Parliament, with two abstentions and four invalid votes. Up to this point, Ranil was supposed to have had the blessings of the tainted Rajapaksa clan’s ‘ruling’ SLPP, which could account for only 115 MPs, or a wafer-thin majority.
However, after the day’s session, SLPP boss Mahinda Rajapaksa, a two-term president and the prime minister during the crisis, told newsmen that they had fielded and voted for Ranil’s rival, Dulles Alahapperuma, but he lost.
It was a tactic aimed at distancing Ranil from the family, lest the public protests for the latter’s exit should grow in strength.
But no one was fooled.
The truth is that there was all-round cross-voting from the anti-Rajapaksa camp, almost from every alliance partner in the mainline SJB, led by the Leader of the Opposition, Sajith Premadasa.
The latter was himself a presidential aspirant, having lost to predecessor Gotabaya in 2019 elections by a wide margin.
What more, Premadasa had announced his candidacy for this week’s vote unilaterally very long ago, and withdrew in favour of Dulles Alahapperuma, a Mahinda crony for decades, at the last-minute – again without consulting his party.
Alleging that the Rajapaksas fooled him squarely by fielding a dummy candidate in Dulles, SJB rebels, led possibly by war-time army commander, Field Marshal Sarath Fonseka, are likely to bray for Premadasa's blood.
It means that he would not have much time for either Ranil or the Rajapaksas, as in the past weeks and months, when the ‘Aragalaya’ protests drowned the Opposition’s voice completely.
True to his pacifist image, and given his long years as the senior-most parliamentarian and six-term prime minister (none of which he completed, including the more recent one), Wickremesinghe, in his acceptance speech, invited all political parties, including those that had opposed his candidacy, to join hands to address the nation’s problems together.
None of them has responded as of yet, but he would initiate serious efforts to make it possible, if ever he could.
As always in the past, it would be a coalition government even otherwise, wherein the SLPP members would be joined by ‘rebels’ from other parties, starting with the SJB and its allies, and of course minority party MPs who pledged their support to him openly or voted for him without declaring their intent.
Indications are that the SLPP Leader of the House, Minister Dinesh Gunawardena, may become the prime minister, especially if the opposition did not join them and formed a ‘national government’.
Alternatively, the job may go to Dulles, whom Ranil just defeated. A remote choice now is Foreign Minister G L Peiris, who is also the SLPP chairman and had seconded Dulles’ name for the presidency after SJB’s Premadasa had proposed it.
Peiris’s foreign policy expertise could mean that Ranil may have to retain him in the job. But then, the prime minister should not be an eternally-travelling person, which the foreign minister especially would have to be even without the current economic crisis, requiring constant appeals to and interactions with foreign governments and their leaders.
The prime minister’s job is sinecure but that same cannot be said about the finance minister, especially during this period. In the absence of an able candidate, Gotabaya let Prime Minister Ranil remain the finance minister, too.
This dual responsibility helped Ranil to restore the confidence of foreign governments and institutions, starting with the IMF, in the evolving Sri Lankan economic administration and fiscal management. It was precisely for this reason, the Rajapaksas had chosen him as the prime minister.
It is likely that Ranil as president would retain the finance portfolio until after the IMF agreements are completed and the repayment rescheduling of the $51 billion that the nation owed overseas creditors is concluded.
Whether now or later, SJB’s Harsha de Silva, an economist, maybe the best man for the job, given the limited pool of talent that is available.
For this to happen, either the SJB has to join the government or De Silva has to cross-over. Both do not seem improbable.
On the political front, Ranil should feel comfortable, but with the full realisation that he should not play around with the Rajapaksas more than what Mahinda would relish.
Unlike his brothers, Mahinda has had a genuinely good relation with Ranil at a personal level. As a thoroughbred politician, he also acknowledges the ground level compulsions of his friends and opponents alike.
But given the anti-Rajapaksa public mood, which is likely to remain for a long time, playing hide-and-seek with the public mood on bringing the clan members to book, could create problems for President Ranil – which both of them would know all along.
Ranil’s near-immediate job is to restore law and order, which has slipped by rungs through the weeks and months of ‘Aragalaya’ protests, which turned arsonist, first on 9 May, when 78 politicians’ homes were burnt, and on 9 July, when Prime Minister Wickremesinghe’s personal residence in the heart of Colombo was set ablaze.
Understanding the seriousness of the problem even before all this, Ranil as acting president gave full powers to the security forces to bring the situation under control.
The president-elect even chatted up with security forces personnel guarding Parliament after protesters tried to storm it, as they had done with the President’s Secretariat and residence and also the prime minister’s office.
If the message was not clear, he once again warned the protesters against resorting to violence. It is not unlikely that they may continue to get the beach-front space in Colombo for continuing their protests, but without anymore access to the President’s Secretariat.
The protesters have since defied court orders in the matter – and this could start off something that the new president would have to handle deftly and at the same time, firmly.
Post facto, some Sri Lankans now argue that President Gota, despite his toughie image, wavered in giving powers to the security forces, to act against arsonists and such other violent protestors, across southern Sri Lankan, fearing human rights charges.
Unlike the Rajapaksas, especially President Gota and his short-term Finance Minister Basil Rajapaksa, Ranil did not mince words when he became the prime minister and followed it up with finance minister’s assignment.
He said that people would have to suffer worse hardships than already for six months before things stabilised.
More recently, he added that the economy would do a real turn-around from next year’s end. Experts have, however, fixed a longer period, around three years, for such a turn-around to commence, and with another six or seven years for reaching the pre-crisis levels.
However, with administrative bottle-necks that had delayed oil-bookings, deliveries, and distribution that had occurred in the last weeks of Gota’s regime have been seemingly cleared.
As a result, petrol, diesel, and cooking gas supplies to the consumer, though regulated, may soon begin to smoothen out.
As finance minister, Wickremesinghe had also predicted the granary going empty one more time and soon enough, and has since launched further talks with the generous neighbour, India, and the rest, to ensure steady supplies over the short and medium terms.
The new government is also expected to get a favourable reply in matters of chemical fertiliser imports to steady and then strengthen the nation’s agriculture sector, including the export-driven tea industry, which too had suffered because of Gota’s overnight policy-shift towards ‘organic farming’ and replacing urea and nitrogen import with ‘organic fertilisers,’ this one from, yes, China.
Though with initial resistance, driven by political animosity towards the Rajapaksas, various industry sectors and their organisations, are expected to work with the new president, given their regard for his overall capabilities, to tide over the current economic crisis and take the nation forward.
Of course, a lot will depend on the long term, but given the international community’s favourable opinion about Wickremesinghe, and his proximity to India, Japan, and China alike, the new president is expected to kick-start negotiations with multiple stakeholders, starting with the IMF, in the weeks and months to come.
The government will have to begin by getting overseas credit repayment rescheduled, for which the previous government had hired a team of international experts – indicating the kind of expertise required.
In between, the new president, like all his predecessors, is likely to make India his overseas destination, with the added reason that the northern neighbour was the only one to feed and fuel the nation through the past months of crises.
It would also give his team a better picture into the future of bilateral relations, investment cooperation, and economic assistance that the two nations can work, well into the near and not-so-near future, all with the idea of creating more Sri Lankan jobs for Sri Lankans, and more revenue for the government, again through the short, medium, and long terms.
It would be unlike the China-funded white elephant projects through the past decade that it would still be wrong to brand it as ‘debt-trap’.
Yet, the new president is likely to face foreign policy tensions on two specific areas – one, on the domestic behaviour and the other on overseas friends.
With western funding required as much as that from the IMF, the US, and its European allies can be expected to pressure Colombo even more to cut off trade relations with Russia, which had begun by supplying 90,000 tonnes of crude, with promise of more – that Finance Minister Ranil was shy of following up.
China will be another factor, and problems can arise if Beijing, unlike through the past months, returns with aid and assistance, now that they have an idea of whom to deal with in Colombo, under relatively stable political conditions.
India may be watching, but the West again may be upset. As may be recalled, as prime minister, Wickremesinghe had proposed an Asian aid consortium, comprising India, Japan, and China after his original idea of a global consortium reportedly received lukewarm response – at least at that stage, when Gotabaya Rajapaksa was still president.
There is another area where the new president will come under international pressure.
The UNHRC at Geneva will take up the Sri Lanka case all over again in its bi-annual September session, and will pressure Colombo to let their monitoring team to set up shop in the country, as mandated some time ago.
It is just unacceptable to Sri Lanka, as it would be seen as an attempt to ‘name’ individual military officers and personnel, from CDS Shavendra Silva downwards, in alleged offences dating back to the ‘ethnic war’ and coming close, to the day before.
In the 2015-19 period when he was the prime minister under anti-Rajapaksa president, Maithripala Sirisena, Wickremesinghe had deftly handled the situation by joining in a co-sponsored resolution at the UNHRC, the effect of which was to let Sri Lanka off the hook during his tenure in office, only to return to hurt and hit the Rajapaksas, once they were back in power through the twin elections of 2019 and 2020.
(N Sathiya Moorthy is a Chennai-based policy analyst & commentator).