by Rajan Philips
In America, a former President is facing serious federal criminal charges and is banking on a presidential re-election campaign to overcome his legal troubles. Both are unprecedented – both the arraignment of and the re-election effort by a former president, and true to form Donald Trump stands shameless in his lonely infamy. In the UK, a former Prime Minister has quit parliament to escape further scrutiny of and sanctions for his abhorrent behaviour, while wishfully keeping the door open to return as PM even much later. Former Prime Ministers returning to power is not unprecedented in the British parliamentary system, but no predecessor of Boris Johnson has defiled the high office in the way only he could have, and no successor would likely be able to plumb the same despicable depths. There is also no return path to Downing Street for Boris Johnson
Meanwhile in Italy the Bunga Bunga era in the country’s politics and culture came to an end last week with the death of its four-time former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi. It was Berlusconi who heralded the rise of perverse populism in western countries and was both a harbinger of and a prototype hybrid between the malignance of Donald Trump and the buffoonery of Boris Johnson. Trump in the US, Johnson in UK and the late Berlusconi in Italy provide a contemporary global backdrop to the unfolding of the Ranil Wickremesinghe presidency in Sri Lanka. While Trump is in trouble, Boris has bolted, and Berlusconi lies in wait for his grand requiem, Ranil Wickremesinghe is quietly morphing into King Ranil of Sri Lanka. He went for the coronation of King Charles, but King Ranil needs no crown to being far more powerful than King Charles.
Ranil Wickremesinghe became President as a caretaker President, to take care of the economy. I have called him a parliamentary President, and given Sri Lanka’s longest constitutional spell as a hybrid presidential-parliamentary system, it is also appropriate to call him caretaker President. We have had caretaker prime ministers before, and they are so called to highlight their provisional status between the dissolution of an old parliament and the election of a new parliament. In the case of our caretaker President, he is taking care that no elections are held that may disturb his caretaker reign. Which elections will be held and when are entirely a matter of his presidential choosing. He has also extended the scope and tentacles of his caretaker role to go beyond the economy and reach every nook and cranny of the political terrain.
What seems central to King Ranil’s reign is what is being mistakenly called a ‘legal reform’, but actually a scheme to pass a spate of not merely bad but outrightly insidious laws. The list of these insidious laws, still bills, is now common knowledge, and they include – in ABCD order – Anti-Terrorism Bill, Anti-Corruption Bill, Broadcasting Regulatory Commission Bill, the Central Bank Bill, and other (Damn) bills for one or more labour laws. Every one of them is being criticized and condemned by those who are known champions of the “rule of law,” but not the King’s version of “rule by law.” But their concerns are likely to go nowhere because King Ranil has control over a majority parliament comprising all Rajapaksa MPs who are beholden to the King. They may squirm here and there, but throw a few cabinet posts and the Rajapaksa animal kingdom will faithfully follow King Ranil.
During the time of the United Front Government, the then Minister of Justice Felix Dias suddenly found forensic inspiration and directed his officials to review the possibility of doing away with the time honoured writ practice of habeas corpus. The Anglican Minister of Justice was apparently getting tired of the nation’s colonial vestiges. The alarmed officials ran to the Prime Minister, Mrs. Bandaranaike, who threw up her hands and said something to the effect, “What can I do? Go and see Colvin.” They went to Colvin, who threw up his arms and growled, “Leave it with me.” And that was the end of it. No one talked about habeas corpus again, except in courts.
Now, there is no Mrs. B to show the wisdom of leaving it to the experts, and there is no Colvin R. de Silva to bear down on impulsive and/or idiotic ministers. The King calls all the shots and by insider revelations (not that any is needed), there are plenty of idiots in the SLPP and the Cabinet to follow him like sheep. The King’s Minister of Justice is not as clever as Felix, but he seems all ready to enjoy the perks of office, but is not at all ready to take responsibility for all the drafting drivels that are circulated as bills. He laughs them off as mere “drafts,” or worse, “proposals.” The Supreme Court is routinely called upon to edit and correct the poorly drafted but insidiously intended bills. Well-meaning lawyers and commentators are crying foul from the sidelines, but nothing different happens. King Ranil pretends to stay above the fray, but sees to it that whatever he wills is done.
What is there in common between King Ranil, on the one hand, and the perverse populists like Donald Trump, Boris Johnson and the late Silvio Berlusconi? To the trio, you may want to add the likes of India’s Narendra Modi, Brazil’s ex Jair Bolsonaro, Turkey’s Erdogan and Russia’s Vladimir Putin, as members of a global club of populist autocrats. Modi is better and worse than the rest of them in his own and different ways. But that is for another day. For now, what is there in common between Ranil Wickremesinghe and the global figures I am referencing? The answer is nothing. It is the differences that are interesting.
At a personal and ethical level, Ranil Wickremesinghe has nothing in common with them. Every one of them, with the doubtful exception Modi, is unethical. They are all scoundrels in more ways than one. It is the same with political corruption, and again Modi is only a doubtful exception. Modi’s and the BJP’s connections to upstart billionaire Gautam Shantilal Adani are universally known and so are allegations of cronyism. The Advani group has been accused of stock market manipulation, and the accusations have not only shrunk the Advani family fortunes, but they have also besmirched Modi’s reputation.
As for Mr. Wickremesinghe, while he is personally honest and may not be a direct beneficiary of political corruption, he is not at all insulated from political corruption. On the contrary, he not merely allows but might even encourage political corruption by those around him. For this, he has had to pay a heavy political price at every turn, but does not seem to have learnt anything from the experience. The 2002 peace process was a direct victim of political corruption, and the mother of all corrupt deals came with the January 2015 Central Bank Bond Scam that proved to be the grave digger that buried the whole yahapalanaya project.
But there has been no show of remorse or recalibration of political action. As I argued some time ago, there is no point in achieving national reconciliation (arbitrarily arresting Gajendrakumar Ponnambalam, the grandson of GG Ponnambalam, is a sure way of botching it) or economic prosperity, while allowing the stables of corruption to continue and without doing anything to apprehend the perpetrators of too many “emblematic” murders.
To get back to the comparator group, Trump, Johnson, Berlusconi and Bolsonaro have no serious political genealogy or commitment to any serious agenda. Their involvement in politics is mainly to satisfy their gigantic egos and serve whatever interests they have that might benefit from state resources. Erdogan and Modi are different. Both have entrenched political agendas predicated on religious fundamentalism and driven by market philosophies. Erdogan’s goal is to transform Kemal Ataturk’s secular Turkey into a religious state, while Modi’s mission is to upend the Nehruvian secularism and make India a Hindutva state where Muslims will not have a significant place. Putin is an outlier and a queer mixture of Tsarist nostalgia and Bolshevik apparatus, although his primary linkage to Bolshevism is mostly biological in that his grandfather was Lenin’s cook. While his foray into Ukraine has terribly backfired, he has been consequentially successful in isolating the West from much of the Global South.
King Ranil’s Political Makeup
Intellectually and politically, Mr. Wickremesinghe has no feel for the Global South. Practically, he wants to curry favour with every country, north or south, and every leader who matter and who might be at odds with one another. That is unavoidable given Sri Lanka’s debt load and economic precarity. The President certainly does not subscribe to the traditional UNP philosophy (under DS at first, and under JR 30 years later) of “Anglo mania and India phobia,” as NM Perera called it at the outset; but what is key to the President becoming King is his domestic philosophy.
His political philosophy, if we might call it so, is mostly family moss gathered over a lifetime. It is not a set of political ideas that are the result of self-reflection and peer-contestation in a political party or organization, and ultimately vetted and validated in praxis. The fact that the UNP has mostly been a one-man band ever since Ranil Wickremesinghe became its leader is one of the main reasons for his current makeup. He is both the cause and the consequence of the corrosion of the UNP.
The UNP and UNP cabinets were not always like this, certainly not under DS Senanayake or under Dudley Senanayake. Even JRJ’s cabinet was a formidable one, but cabinet government (as Jennings explained it) was undone by the presidential system and the rivalries it invariably created among presidentially aspiring ministers. That set the tone for every presidential cabinet that came thereafter. Although it was set up to ensure political stability and facilitate efficiency, the presidential system has produced only chronic instability and dysfunctional chaos.
For all this, Mr. Wickremesinghe has never been a popular politician and has always been a serial loser in elections. In terms of political popularity and electoral success he is nowhere near the rest of the global comparators that I am referencing in this article. Trump won once and lost the second time, but he has solidly behind him an agitated mob of 30 to 50 million Americans. No other American leader in history has had such a loyal and rabid support among the people. Johnson won massively in 2019, and was forced to quit, but he has pockets of support throughout England.
Berlusconi has divided Italy in death just as he had in life.
In a somewhat tongue-in-cheek funeral eulogy at the Duomo, Milan’s Archbishop Mario Delpini spoke of Berlusconi as a notoriety seeking personality who had admirers and detractors, “those who applaud him and those who detest him.” They were both there, supporting and shouting at Berlusconi’s funeral. Erdogan and Modi have had consistently impressive electoral success. Bolsonaro surprised everyone with a strong showing in a close defeat to Lula da Silva in Brazil’s October 2022 presidential election. Putin needs no election, but Wickremesinghe cannot avoid them indefinitely.
Even so, and there is no other way to make this point, none of the other comparators have been able to muster the power and the facility to pass laws, impose regulations, and deploy security forces to thwart protesters, the way Ranil Wickremesinghe is enabling himself to do in Sri Lanka. It is this power and facility that he is unobtrusively exercising that is making me call him King Ranil. Add to them his periodical pronouncements that selectively ridicule opponents and assert the use of state power only in the way that he deems right. Donald Trump could not have passed legislation the way King Ranil is passing them. Boris Johnson won a historic majority in the 2019 election, but now he is gone. Ranil Wickremesinghe lost everything in the 2020 election, but now he is able to do anything and everything that no Sri Lankan President before him has been able to do.
None of the comparator leaders could have delayed or deflected elections the way only King Ranil seems able to do. Putin has power at home but he has powerful forces against him abroad. King Ranil has power at home and influential support abroad, almost of all of which he benefits from because of the economic plight of the Sri Lankan People. Narendra Modi is a powerful Prime Minister but he is constantly circumscribed by State governments that have clout and they are led by non-BJP regional parties. In Sri Lanka, the President, now King Ranil, can play with provincial elections to boost his political position, and he can run the provinces through Governors whom he handpicks.
Only Tayyip Erdogan has been actually able to expand his power base at the state level and within government. He was first elected as Prime Minister and then turned himself into President, similar to, but much later than, what JRJ did in Sri Lanka. Erdogan is not leaving any time soon, but JRJ retired after one and a half terms, half unelected and one elected but only after politically handcuffing Mrs. Bandaranaike. To his credit JRJ retired from office, power and politics, the only Sri Lankan leader to voluntarily forsake power and leave office. By a quirk of circumstances, Ranil Wickremesinghe has become President and seems to be bent on continuing from where JRJ has left. Everyone who came and went in between are not part of the real history of Sri Lanka, a subject about which no Sri Lankan can know more than what the King knows. That is the word according to the King.
In fairness to President Wickremesinghe, my caricaturing him as King should not be taken to mean that he really he means to be a King. Rather, his actions and the ease with which he seems to be getting everything he wants done, objectively make those actions seem to be those of a King. In politics, it is not the subjective intentions of political leaders that matter, but the objective results that flow from their actions. It might be quite the case that President Wickremesinghe thinks that his actions and the laws and regulations that he wants passed will be justified by the economic turnaround that he is anticipating and his forecast of economic prosperity by 2048.
The dreadful prospect, however, is that the economic recovery may not be as swift and as far reaching as the President is expecting, and that the consequences of his political actions may result in bad governments becoming routine and entrenched. Ranil Wickremesinghe could easily avoid all of this by focusing on the economy and not rushing ahead with quite unnecessary legal and political changes that are causing worries not only among his critics but also among those who want him to succeed on the economic front.