The rise and reign of Ranil W, one year on

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  • Can the man who is steering the bankrupt nation towards economic and political stability beat the Churchillian hoodoo, come 2024 elections
For decades, Ranil Wickremesinghe had been at the butt end of jokes about being the longest-serving Leader of the Opposition in the country and of ruining what was once the Grand Old Party, the United National Party (UNP) to the ground, reducing its base vote from about forty percent to two percent at the last general election.

Just over one year and a few months ago, his political obituary had already been written. He was consigned to history as the man who became Prime Minister half a dozen times but never made it to the top of the greasy pole of politics. Then, a year and two days ago, Wickremesinghe rewrote history in a way that could have surprised even himself.

For all the political wisdom that he is supposed to possess, even Wickremesinghe couldn’t have known when he first appointed himself as the sole UNP MP and then responded positively to President Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s invitation to become Prime Minister, that the President would be hounded out of office two months later. In fact, the one reason that Gotabaya Rajapaksa called on Wickremesinghe was that he felt confident that the Rajapaksas wouldn’t be persecuted by a government where he was Prime Minister, even though by then, relations among the Rajapaksa brothers had been fractured to the point of speaking to each other through third parties.

Both Wickremesinghe and the Rajapaksa family are from the old school of politics; bitter rivals, but maintaining personal relations, and in this case, even the political ‘you scratch my back; I will scratch yours’ credo. Their eventual joining of hands to run a government turned party politics loyalties topsy turvy. Yesterday’s enemies were today’s comrades-in-arms and vice versa in a consistently evolving drama.

Call it luck, co-incidence or perseverance, on July 21, 2022, exactly forty-five years after first being elected to Parliament as a very young member of Biyagama, a very mature Ranil Wickremesinghe was sworn in as the eighth Executive President of the country.

Fortune, they say, favours the brave. Indeed, it was widely reported that Sajith Premadasa, to whom Rajapaksa the Younger first extended the invitation to become Prime Minister, flinched at the prospect. Many in the Opposition believed that the economy would nosedive shortly afterwards and Premadasa would be held responsible if he were PM. On the contrary, Wickremesinghe revelled in such situations. As Prime Minister, and even before then, he had begun to address the nation first through YouTube channels and then mainstream media regularly, telling his countrymen how bleak the immediate future was.

Propelled to the Presidency by virtue of first being Prime Minister cum Finance Minister and then Acting President, Wickremesinghe had many fires to put out: the economy was a shambles, the ‘aragalaya’ protesters still wanted their pound of flesh and the long-suffering masses had given up on expecting a miracle from a man they had resoundingly rejected and sent home a mere twenty-three months earlier.

To this day an avid reader—despite his busy schedule—and a student of history, Wickremesinghe clearly saw himself as a modern-day Winston Churchill of sorts. Like Britain’s wartime Prime Minister, Wickremesinghe had to spend four decades in politics before becoming Head of Government. Also like Churchill, he spent a few years in the political wilderness just before reaching the highest echelons of government. If Churchill waged war against Hitler, Wickremesinghe has a different enemy to contend with: the economic war that has crippled a nation and placed it at the mercy of donor nations, private foreign creditors and international lending agencies.

Unexpected and unbelievable: President Ranil Wickremesinghe, winner of the presidential election in Parliament on July 20 last year, is seen at the Parliamentary complex the following day when he arrived there to take oaths as Sri Lanka’s ninth executive president.

On the day that Gotabaya Rajapaksa fled, Wickremesinghe had his residence at 5th Lane, Colombo, reduced to cinders, and those of neighbouring family members were damaged as well by goons masquerading as ‘peaceful protestors’. It was the ultimate insult to someone who had been in politics for almost half a century and amassed no other property.  If he was smarting from that affront, as any human being would, he responded with steely determination, as Acting President, to deal with the situation. He was quick to realise that what was done to him was to make him quit. If as Prime Minister the defence top brass did not take his calls as arsonists were on the rampage, they certainly did when he became Commander in Chief. Clear instructions were given to protect Parliament, the next obvious target of the protestors.

After his first visit to Parliament as President, he stopped on the way to greet soldiers, sending a clear signal that he was now indeed the numero uno, both in theory and practice, de facto and de jure. He acted more as the officer commanding troops than his predecessor who was in fact once a real officer commanding troops.  Now, the nation was seeing Wickremesinghe as the Executive President, with powers conferred on him through a Constitution drafted by his Machiavellian uncle J.R. Jayewardene under whose wings he tutored in politics.

Under Wickremesinghe, there have been times when democracy has taken a backseat. Wickremesinghe appears to have also borrowed a page from J.R.’s book in indefinitely postponing elections. J.R. postponed general elections and held a referendum instead in 1982; his nephew cited ‘financial hardship’ and postponed local government polls forty-one years later. He did so to ensure that neither the Samagi Jana Balavegaya (SJB) nor the Jathika Jana Balavegaya (JJB) emerged winners and carried that momentum into general or presidential elections just like the Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP) did five years ago. From the point of view of realpolitik that is understandable but in so doing, he may have damaged his standing as a democrat irrevocably by setting a dangerous precedent that elections cannot be held because there are no funds.

Wickremesinghe’s critics would say the clampdown on dissent and the postponement of elections are draconian and undemocratic; he would argue they were necessary. He gambled with the decision to sacrifice his democratic credentials for political stability. Despite his position, his party, the UNP, was still too disorganised for an election. That he has set his sights firmly on resurrecting the economy is obvious. He also hopes that this will be the ticket to re-election, if he turns around the economy, come 2024.

To give credit where it is due, Wickremesinghe has been able to restore a semblance of normalcy to an economy that was spiralling out of control. After addressing the acute shortages of gas, fuel, and electricity initially, he has now negotiated deals with the International Monetary Fund (IMF), the Asian Development Bank (ADB) and the Paris Club of donor nations.

There is more work to be done, of course, but he is determined to see these measures through, even though it may cost him some popularity. Nevertheless, many Sri Lankans are coming to the conclusion that it was Wickremesinghe who stopped Sri Lanka from snowballing into a failed state such as Lebanon or Venezuela. Whether that will stand him in good stead at any future elections remains to be seen. He knows the electorate has short memories, positive and negative. Good deeds, as much as bad deeds, are easily forgotten.

His promise of a prosperous Sri Lanka by 2048—when he would be 99 years of age—invited ridicule in some quarters and saw social media being flooded with suggestive images of what Wickremesinghe would look like at that time—but it is a grave reminder of the enormity of the crisis he is faced with and that a quick fix is not on the cards. How many in the electorate appreciate this stark reality, is the question.

Curiously though, for someone who has dabbled in politics for half a century, it has been his political decisions that have been questioned more than his handling of the economy. Perhaps out of a sense of loyalty to the SLPP parliamentary group—or the ‘pohottuwa’ as they are known—which elected him as President, he has stuck with them but he must know that there are no permanent friends or enemies in politics, only permanent interests.

That means being saddled with a motley bunch of parliamentarians with dubious achievements who have already lost their credibility with the voting public. As of February this year, Wickremesinghe had the constitutional power to dissolve Parliament but has chosen not to exercise this, knowing that if he does so, it would trigger a general election for which his own UNP is largely unprepared. What he has managed to do to shield himself from being tarnished with the ‘pohottuwa’ brush is to resist entreaties from Basil Rajapaksa to appoint SLPP district leaders as Cabinet ministers, but allow parliamentary select committees to seemingly whitewash the recent past that led to a bankrupt nation.

However, some ministers are treating him as if he were a ‘lame duck’ President. Health Minister Keheliya Rambukwella adopts a ‘don’t care’ attitude and refuses to resign despite the rising public angst against him. Public Security Minister Tiran Alles insists on his nominee being appointed the Inspector General of Police (IGP), resulting in the retiring IGP getting yet another extension. Some ministers of his display their ignorance and incompetence time and again and even lesser-known MPs behave like bulls in a China shop at state institutions and have the gall to invite the media for the show. None of them faces any consequences. In that sense, for all the executive powers at his disposal, Wickremesinghe appears powerless at times.

The other major public lament—echoed ad nauseum by the collective opposition—is that Wickremesinghe has been dragging his feet to tackle corruption. Presenting what he called the most advanced anti-corruption legislation to Parliament doesn’t mean much to the electorate, unless a minister is sent to jail. The proof of the law is in the implementation of it.

It is no secret in the corridors of power that Wickremesinghe is cultivating the confidence of a few dozen handpicked SLPP stalwarts, especially those who are working alongside him as ministers and state ministers who have been impressed by his commitment and work ethic. Some have already announced their support for him at a future Presidential election. The same ‘poach from the opposition camp’ strategy is being applied to SJB MPs as well, some of them being low-hanging fruit and ripe for the picking by virtue of being Wickremesinghe’s protégés only a few years ago. Usually the ‘salon door’ for MPs swings towards where the centre of power is.

Perhaps preoccupied with the onerous duties of the Presidency and getting the economy back on track, travelling to world capitals for state funerals, cultivating world leaders, and holding bi-laterals, Wickremesinghe has let the task of getting the party machinery oiled and running to his office-bearers, but not made much headway in reforming the Grand Old Party which he plans to do by introducing a new Party Constitution next month.

The problems he will face are similar to those encountered by his uncle J.R. in the mid-seventies when there were so many hopefuls eyeing the No. 2 slot. Appointing a handful of ‘deputy leaders’ will postpone the issue but probably make it worse. The UNP’s grassroots networks are still hibernating, compared to those of the ‘pohottuwa’ which is slowly but surely blooming again.

It is now obvious that the next major poll will be a presidential election with Wickremesinghe certain to run as a ‘common’ candidate of sorts, with support from an eclectic mix of UNPers, handpicked SLPPers, disgruntled SLFPers, and defecting SJBers. If the SLPP decides not to field a candidate, it could well go along and tacitly support Wickremesinghe as well, though that could be the kiss of death for his candidacy.

For all his blunders of yesteryear and his unyielding attitude on certain issues while in office recently, Wickremesinghe has two factors to his advantage. Firstly, the general perception—even among those ideologically opposed to him—that he was brave enough to step up at the height of the political crisis last year. Secondly, the less-than-impressive credentials of his most likely opponents, Sajith Premadasa and Anura Kumara Dissanayake, who have both done a lot of talking but haven’t been able to walk the talk.

Today’s political scenario was unimaginable one year ago and so it is for October 2024, when presidential elections are due. Ranil Wickremesinghe will be hoping that it was not from a poisoned chalice that he tasted the powers of the Executive Presidency for the first time last year. Also, just as much as he could compare his return to power while fighting an economic war as being Churchillian in nature he would most definitely not want to end his political life like the former British Prime Minister: he won the war but lost the next election.