Sri Lanka’s beleaguered Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe went before a hostile press Friday, his first public appearance after the local government elections, and accepted responsibility for the drubbing.
Wickremesinghe fielded questions from journalists while demonstrating unusual calm and composure. He answered the incisive and embarrassing questions without rancour and he even managed to raise a few laughs.
Asked if he had given some 20 million rupees to each of the 16 Tamil National Alliance MPs to buy their support, Wickremesinghe said: “Why give the TNA. If I had 20 million, I will keep it for myself!”
The premier was using the open press conference to demonstrate his confidence in the midst of a political crisis deepened by a hostile president egging on his Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) to form a government.
If Wickremesinghe was upset with President Maithripala Sirisena over moves to topple him, Wickremesinghe did not betray any fears of losing his job.
Wickremesinghe is not known for his public relations skills, but on Friday he mingled with reporters and shared cheese sandwiches, fish rolls, mushroom puffs and a cake as fruity as Sri Lankan politics.
“As far as I am concerned, I am carrying on as Prime Minister,” Wickremesinghe said responding to questions on Sirisena getting his party to muster legislators to overthrow him and his government.
He maintained that no one, let alone the president, had asked him to step down. Even former president Mahinda Rajapaksa had telephoned him last week to inquire after him.
After making a statement in Sinhala and then repeating most of it in English, Wickremesinghe took questions without any aides by his side. After a 30-minute presser, Wickremesinghe mingled with the over 100 journalists and spoke about coalition woes and his chemistry with Sirisena.
Many journalists had speculated that Wickremesinghe would make a prepared statement and leave without taking any questions, but he surprised all by opening the floor.
Instead of dodging questions, he took them head on. Asked about the humiliating defeat, he said he was taking responsibility for it.
He attributed the defeat to his government’s failure to prosecute corrupt members of the former regime. The high cost of living in the run up to the elections, including the high price of rice and coconuts also contributed to their drubbing.
He admitted that the fall out of the bond had scam also affected votes and so did the effects of the drought and floods in different corners of the country.
He played down widening differences with President Sirisena and his Sri Lanka Freedom Party and put it down to “coalition politics” and said all sides were getting used to the new reality.
“It was difficult at the beginning, but now we are getting used to it,” he said.
Was Wickremesinghe putting on an act to convince reporters that he was not unduly worried about political manoeuvring of a junior coalition partner and a president with the potential of being a Judas. That was the unanswered question. If he is out of job next week as Prime Minister , he can still consider taking up an acting career. And reverse the trend of actors ending up as politicians.