On May 9, Mahinda Rajapaksa met his supporters at the Temple Trees, the prime minister’s official residence, before stepping down. His emotionally charged supporters came out and violently attacked the protesters camped in front of the building. They proceeded to the so-called Gota-Go-Gama and destroyed the protest site igniting a nationwide anti-government riot. The day’s events also ignited the fear that the country could fully or partially drift into military rule. It was against this backdrop Ranil Wickremesinghe, the lone member of the United National Party (UNP) in parliament, was appointed prime minister. He was sworn in on May 12.
Despite the total lack of parliamentary strength of his own, his appointment was accepted for two main reasons. One, the suffering masses believed that he could effectively resolve the “scarcity”problem. Two, the ruling party knew that Wickremesinghe had the potential to mitigate the strength of the protest. In an essay entitled, Sri Lankan Crisis and Regime Change (Eurasiareview, May 15, 2022), I pointed out that “Wickremesinghe may be acceptable to a part of the resistance as the new prime minister. His experience and the people’s desperation could influence some Sri Lankans to accept him to run the country.” As expected, with the appointment of Wickremesinghe as prime minister, the ferocity of the resistance weakened, and public protest almost disappeared. Therefore, President Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s strategic calculation in appointing Wickremesinghe to lead the government proved effective.
Nevertheless, the two-month experiment with Wickremesinghe as prime minister proved a failure. Prime Minister Wickremesinghe had three significant problems to deal with: (1) resolving the economic crisis, (2) closing the deal with the IMF, and (3) mitigating presidential power through the 21st Amendment to the Constitution.
Scarcity of Essential Commodities
Ever since the Great Crisis started, India has been helping Sri Lanka with immediate needs by extending, for example, credit lines, which enabled Sri Lanka to purchase essential commodities from India. Therefore, when Wickremesinghe ascended, supplies also increased. This was another reason why the protests dwindled. However, the supplies dried up as India could not continue the strategic assistance. Inflation continued to escalate, and the queues, especially for petroleum products, increased steadily. The governed-introduced token system for fuel also failed. In late June, the government announced that orders for new fuel supplies had not been placed due to talk of foreign currency. Consequently, the country came to a standstill. For example, schools were closed, and even parliament restricted its activities. In essence, Wickremesinghe could not help resolve the supply issues, let alone the economic crisis. In fact, he warned that the economy could completely collapse in the coming weeks. In the last two months, he served better as an explainer (of the situation) than a crisis resolver.
Since the inception of the Great Crisis, many independent analysts urged the government to approach the International Monetary Fund (IMF) for help. The government was hesitant, mainly due to the belief that China would bail out. For example, the pro-China Central Bank Governor Ajith Cabraal announced that the country does not need IMF relief. This was in January 2022. It is important to note that Cabraal played a pivotal role in the creation of the crisis. Realizing the need for an IMF relief package, President Gotabaya Rajapaksa announced that the country will “work” with the IMF to resolve the economic crisis. He made the announcement while addressing the nation in March. However, the government did not impart the impression that it was keen on getting the IMF help. The process was slow, and a first-time politician with hardly any experience in economic issues or international negotiation was sent to Washington for discussion with the IMF.
Serious discussions started after Wickremesinghe became prime minister. An IMF team visited Sri Lanka in June to explore the situation. On June 30, the visiting team declared it conducted “constructive and productive discussions” with Sri Lankan authorities and will continue the “discussions in support of Sri Lanka and its people.” It also meant that Wickremesinghe could convince the IMF to help Sri Lanka so far. Another failure, given the urgency of the issue.
Although Sri Lanka’s Great Crisis is an economic problem, it entailed a political element. The conventional wisdom is that the enormous powers vested on the president led to the present economic calamity because they facilitated extreme corruption. The 1978 Constitution created a powerful president. Even though the current president consolidated presidential powers recently through the 20th Amendment to the Constitution, Gotabaya Rajapaksa offered to reform the Constitution to reduce presidential powers. Addressing the nation on May 11, Gotabaya Rajapaksa said, “I will take steps to amend the Constitution to re-enact the contents of the 19th Amendment to empower the Parliament.”
On his appointment as prime minister, Wickremesinghe also promised to curtail presidential powers. In a tweet dated May 15, Wickremesinghe declared, “21st Amendment: This will be taken up for discussion with the Attorney General’s Department tomorrow (Monday) and then be presented to Cabinet for approval.” The problem was that he had no parliamentary power to adopt the Amendment. Approval depended entirely on the wishes of the SLPP, which has the majority in parliament. According to media reports, the SLPP is opposed to some of the proposed measures.
Nevertheless, a deeply watered-down version of the new Amendment was gazetted on June 29. Some provisions would come into effect only when a new parliament is elected. In other words, Gotabaya Rajapaksa would not lose any powers due to the new Amendment, even if approved in parliament. It is also unclear if the SLPP would vote for the proposed Amendment to the Constitution. Therefore, as of today, the reform program also did not succeed.
Another Regime Change?
As underscored, Ranil Wickremesinghe could not fix the problems in the last two months. It seems that he has a long-term imagination for a solution. In a parliamentary speech on July 5, Wickremesinghe stated that the “economy which was bankrupt, cannot be revived overnight and it would take several years to do so.” However, it is clear that the people are not ready to wait for “years” to overcome the situation. They want a quick fix, at least for the scarcity problem. Now, the protesters are also chanting “ranil-go-home.” They want the Gota-Ranil duo to quit. With this aim, a mass rally will be held on July 9. Wickremesinghe might quit if adequate pressure is applied.
Gotabaya Rajapaksa is different. He has sacrificed many people, including his brothers, to save his skin. He would not mind sacrificing Ranil Wickremesinghe either. He does not want to lose any powers vested on him currently by the Constitution. He also does not want to step down as a “failed president.” Gotabaya Rajapaksa seems determined to complete his term and step down at the end of 2024. The only consolation prize the people received from him was the promise that he would not contest for a second term. Therefore, Sri Lanka seems to be moving towards another stalemate after July 9. Another regime change cannot be ruled out either.
Dr. S. I. Keethaponcalan is a Professor of Conflict Resolution at Salisbury University, Maryland. Formerly, he was a Professor of Political Science at the University of Colombo, Sri Lanka.