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Sri Lanka: Colombo’s Controversial New President – Analysis

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By Neil DeVotta*

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On 20 July 2022, Sri Lanka’s parliament voted to make Ranil Wickremasinghe the country’s eighth Executive President until November 2024. That is when Gotabaya Rajapaksa, who fled the island on 13 July, would have completed his term. Gotabaya’s humiliating exit stemmed from ferocious island-wide protests precipitated by Sri Lanka’s worst ever post-independence economic crisis.

Wickremasinghe’s appointment is controversial. He was once considered a highly credible presidential candidate. Yet most Sri Lankans believe he now lacks legitimacy to be president, which is why they opposed his candidacy.

Wickremasinghe’s election is procedurally legitimate. But it is politically less so. He won less than 31,000 votes during the August 2020 parliament elections and his United National Party (UNP) failed to win a single seat. The UNP is a storied party that negotiated Sri Lanka’s independence and Wickremasinghe is related to nearly all its important leaders.

The UNP has withered under Wickremasinghe’s leadership. In the 2020 parliamentary elections it qualified for one of 29 national list seats. This is how Wickremasinghe managed to become a party of one in parliament.

The constitutional prerogative that allows the prime minister to succeed a deposed president assumes that the prime minister will have been elected to parliament. But Wickremasinghe was not elected and is considered to have entered parliament through the back door.

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His close ties to the Rajapaksa family is the second reason Wickremasinghe is considered ill-suited to be president. Wickremasinghe shielded the Rajapaksas from prosecution when he was prime minister between 2015 and 2019. The Rajapaksas picked him to be prime minister because they believed that he would continue to protect their interests. He is now branded ‘Ranil Rajapaksa’.

Wickremasinghe’s reputation was further tarnished during the 2015 bond scandal involving the UNP when he was prime minister. Having prevented Mahinda Rajapaksa from winning a third term and campaigning on a platform that promised good governance, the national unity government Wickremasinghe was part of turned out to be as corrupt as its predecessor. In typical Sri Lankan fashion, no one has been held responsible for the scandal.

Wickremasinghe has always sought to be politically relevant. After insisting he would not enter parliament via the national list following the 2020 elections debacle, he went months without nominating anyone from UNP and then appointed himself. His determination to latch on to UNP’s leadership despite successive election losses is why the party split. The breakaway group formed the Samagi Jana Balawegaya (SJB).

After Gotabaya fled to the Maldives, Wickremasinghe agreed to step down as prime minister. But the gazette Gotabaya released conveniently appointed Wickremasinghe acting president. Once Gotabaya resigned, Wickremasinghe became interim president and now he has been elected president.

Sajith Premadasa, leader of the SJB opposition, was supposed to compete against Wickremasinghe. He ended up backing Dulles Alahapperuma, a former journalist with strong ties to the Rajapaksa-led Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP). In exchange for the support, Premadasa was to become prime minister in an Alahapperuma presidency.

Leading up to the secret ballot vote in parliament, it appeared Alahapperuma’s candidacy was building momentum. But the Rajapaksas preferred Wickremasinghe and most SLPP members did too.

Wickremasinghe won handily with 134 votes, while Alahapperuma captured 82 votes. Mahinda Rajapaksa pretends he is sorry to see the SLPP’s candidate losing to Wickremasinghe, but this is what the Rajapaksas preferred. Bribing parliamentarians to secure their votes to pass constitutional amendments or switch parties is now a common practice in Sri Lanka. It appears the Rajapaksas may have resorted to bribery in helping Wickremasinghe get as many votes as possible.

Wickremasinghe’s election does not represent the will of the people. The public already view him as a Rajapaksa stooge. Under his leadership, the Rajapaksas will avoid being prosecuted for their sundry crimes. Gotabaya Rajapaksa is bound to return to Sri Lanka and enjoy a high security retirement. This does not mean that the Rajapaksas would have been held accountable for their economic malpractice and plunder under president Allahapperuma. He too has long operated within the Rajapaksa camp. The family can continue using the SLPP parliament majority to dictate the government’s agenda until the next parliamentary elections.

The struggle to get rid of the Rajapaksas has only partly succeeded. Mahinda Rajapaksa may have been ousted as prime minister but the family continue to be represented in parliament. The protestors wanted Wickremasinghe out, but he is now president — an outcome no one envisioned. And with Wickremasinghe picking former schoolmate Dinesh Gunawardena to be the new prime minister, the Rajapaksa family will also have a strong ally overseeing parliamentary affairs.

Wickremasinghe’s election is bound to rattle China, given its close ties to the Rajapaksa family. On the one hand, China is a major creditor and Wickremasinghe will need the country’s help restructuring Sri Lanka’s debts. On the other hand, the new president has long championed neoliberal economics and is more sensitive to Indian and western interests in the Indo-Pacific. His election, therefore, has geopolitical ramifications as well.

Once Wickremasinghe was elected president, a magistrate’s court barred people from congregating within 50 metres around the statue of SWRD Bandaranaike, Sri Lanka’s fourth prime minister. The statue lies next to the main protest site outside the Presidential Secretariat. The ruling was in response to police claiming that protestors could damage the statue — despite the protestors having gathered at the site for 103 days. Wickremasinghe will not tolerate disorderly conduct, which may herald a more muted struggle going forward.

The protestors’ demands are laudable but come across as utopian. Their struggle also disregards how the country’s majoritarian politics has fanned nepotism and corruption. The now fatigued protest movement may fizzle and this is especially likely if Wickremasinghe can form a cross-party government and minimise the current scarcities. Sri Lanka represents an economy of deficits. It must cough up US$500 million a month just for fuel. Food inflation exceeded 80 per cent in June 2022. Nearly 90 per cent of Sri Lankans are skipping meals.

The island needs to restructure its debts and restructure its economy. How long the pain lasts and how future protests pan out will determine Wickremasinghe’s presidency.

*About the author: Neil DeVotta is Professor of Politics and International Affairs at Wake Forest University.

Source: This article was published by East Asia Forum

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