Friday March 24 was the 74th birthday of Ranil Sriyan Wickremesinghe. The Sri Lankan president was born in Colombo on 24 March 1949. This Birthday would have been a delighful one for Ranil for two reasons. This is the first birthday he celebrated as the executive president of Sri Lanka. The other reason is the “gift” received by Sri Lanka from the International Monetary Fund (IMF) a few days earlier. As is well-known, the IMF program was made possible largely due to the untiring efforts of the President. As such he deserves much praise for the IMF bonanza.
President Wickremesinghe has been at the receiving end of cruel criticism from the time he assumed office. Opposition parties, Trade unions, NGOs, Civil society organizations, professional associations, academics, sections of the intelligentsia and the media have all been critical of Ranil Wickremesinghe from the time he was appointed Prime Minister on 12 May 2022 by former President Gotabaya Rajapaksa. Subsequently he became acting president on 9 July. Ranil’s house and belongings including valuable books and antiques were burnt down by “Aragalaya”elements in a bid to make him quit. It proved counter-productive as Ranil instead of being intimidated became boldly defiant. The criticism intensified after Wickremesinghe was elected President by 134 out of 225 Parliamentarians on 20 July 2022. He was sworn in as the eighth executive president of Sri Lanka on July 21st.
This on going criticism of Wickremesinghe is not entirely without merit but in many instances, it seems grossly unfair. Nevertheless ,the much maligned Wickremesinghe did not wilt or quit.With single minded determination, Ranil persisted with his mission of repairing and reviving the economy. The IMF deal is a reward for his efforts. The Central Bank and its Governor. Dr. Nandalal Weerasinghe also worked hard in this respect.
Though Wickremesinghe was under severe attack by his opponents and critics, there is grudging admiration and even respect and support from the ordinary people for his attempt to salvage the economy. Some days before the IMF bail-out, a three-wheeler driver told a journalist in Colombo ”Monawa kivvath, Ranil Mahathaya “try”Ekak Denawa Ne”(Whatever said Mr. Ranil is trying to do something no?)After the IMF arrangement was formally announced many of Wickremesinghe’s critics have either adopted silence or somewhat reluctantly commended him.
Challenges he Faced
After the IMF agreement was tabled in Parliament ,President Wickremesinghe made a special statement in the House. A justifiably elated Wickremesinghe was visibly pleased with himself for his accomplishments under very adverse circumstances. Ranil referred to the dire straits the economy was in when he assumed office and the challenges he faced.The president emphasised that his only strength in surmounting these obstacles was his inner conviction that he was capable of rebuilding his country.This is what he said –
“On the 9th of July last year, I took over a country that was on fire. A country that was in chaos. A country that seemed to be without an iota of hope for the future. A country that had officially declared itself bankrupt. A country where inflation had risen to 73.7%. A country where people suffered for days in queues for fuel and gas. A country with schools closed. A country where ten or twelve hour power cuts were imposed. A country without fertilizer hampering cultivation by farmers. A country where anarchy prevailed in place of law and order. A country where outsiders had forcefully entered public buildings and were in occupation. A country where mob attacks were widespread. A country where homes of opponents were set ablaze. A country where people were assassinated on roads in broad daylight.”
“No one was willing to accept responsibilities in such an environment. Some were reluctant. Some asked for time to check their horoscopes. Some sneaked away. Some panicked. I was requested to take over the country at a time when nobody came forward to shoulder that responsibility.”
“I unconditionally accepted the challenge. I had no power in Parliament. I had no Members of Parliament from my Party to call my own. Even though I had none of these, I had just one strength. This was only my own conviction that I am capable of rebuilding my country. I had numerous experiences to support this conviction of mine.”
In 2001 the economy of the country experienced a minus growth rate. However, I was able to shift the economy of the country to the right track, within a period of less than two years from the time I took over governance. At that juncture, I was able to secure aid worth 4 billion US$ through the Tokyo aid summit. Unfortunately, that aid was not properly utilized by those who took over governance subsequently.
In the same manner, when I took over the economy in 2015, it was in a weak state. But we were able to achieve a surplus in the budget primary balance by 2018. We also took action to increase salaries by approximately 106% while extending various other relief measures.
“I only had the confidence gained from previous experiences when I accepted this serious challenge. I accepted the challenge with the conviction that even if I failed, the country would not.”
Sabotaging IMF Deal
President Wickremesinghe also referred to the attempts made by vested interests to sabotage the chances of procuring urgently required finances from the IMF. Attemts were made to mobilise the people into staging mass protests like last year’s Aragalaya. The ordinary people were not deceived and kept aloof from these demonstrations. The President thanked the people for this in his speech. This is what he said –
“Some tried to make the country totally dysfunctional before the IMF took the decision regarding our country. There were plans to create a continuous wave of strikes, to destroy the economy and create anarchy in the country. They expected to prevent the receipt of IMF assistance through such sabotage. Certain political parties, some trade unions and some media labored to cause disruption. They claimed that we will not receive IMF support because the country was unstable.”
“They said IMF support will not be forthcoming because local government elections were not being held. They tried their best to make the people of the country to take to the streets with various false propaganda of this nature.”
“But the majority of the public did not support such acts of subversion. The majority of the public were not willing to disrupt the progress of the country for misplaced initiatives of various power hungry political parties. The people acted with sheer responsibility for the country.”
“Amidst numerous hardships, bearing all kinds of pressure, and undergoing suffering with equanimity, the people of this country remained calm and patient. Their commitment was a great strength in achieving the IMF Facility. Therefore, I firstly wish to extend my gratitude to my people of this country.”
Social Security System
President Wickremesinghe also outlined the salient points in the economic blueprint being followed by his Government. He specified the immediate goals to be achieved in the context of a post-IMF arrangement. Ranil was mindful of the marginalized,under privileged sections of society and pledged to prioritize the setting up of an effective social security system. Expressing confidence that the 4 year IMF program could be implemented in three to three and a half years,Wickremesinghe warned that failure may result in the country being affected drastically. This is what he said –
“If we implement the economic reforms with proper financial discipline throughout the next four years in accordance with this Agreement, a strong economic foundation will emerge for the future of the country. If we deviate from this path, the entire country will find itself in a worse situation in April, than it was in, sometime back.”
“We need to emphasize a few points here. First, we must prioritize the establishment of a robust social security system for the most vulnerable individuals in our society.Second, we are currently executing plans and strategies to enhance the value of the rupee.Strategies and a formal plan to strengthen the rupee are being implemented.Third, anti-corruption legislation must be passed and implemented immediately.Fourth, we should focus on implementing necessary structural reforms in our society. These reforms should be identified and carried out accordingly.”
“The IMF-approved plan should be implemented and completed in four years. However, depending on our strength and determination, we should be able to finish it in three to three and a half years. Let’s give it a try. Let us put in the effort.”
Early Presidential Election
With the boost received through the IMF bail-out, President Wickremesinghe is very likely to set his sights on an early presidential election. He is now confident of victory in a presidential election.The irresponsible conduct of most MPs in Parliament as well as potential aspirants for presidential power does not inspire much confidence. It appears that only Ranil Wickremesinghe has a clear idea of what must be done to salvage the economy in the short run and how to lay the economic foundation for future prosperity in the long run. The IMF package is only a lifeline that gives Lanka breathing space to resuscitate the economy. To achieve this,Wickremesinghe is firmly convinced that he needs to be in power for a few more years.
Furthermore with more than 45 years of experience as a Parliamentarian, Ranil Wickremesinghe knows that the lack of a proper mandate is his Achilles’ Heel. His United National Party(UNP) was wiped out at the 2020 polls. Ranil himself entered Parliament as a national list MP. He was elected as President by an assortment of MPs from the Government and Opposition. The bulk of MPs supporting him were from the ruling Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna(SLPP).
Independent opinion polls and analytical surveys show that the UNP and SLPP have negligible support in the country if an election is held now. The Samagi Jana Balawegaya (SJB)led by Sajith Premadasa and Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna(JVP) led by Anura Kumara Dissanayake are the leading contenders for the electoral crown currently. Hence Ranil Wickremesinghe is portrayed by his detractors as a “legally” elected President lacking “legitimacy”. This perception is invigorating the political opposition against Wickremesinghe and is somewhat undermining his credibility as President.
Moreover Ranil Wickremesinghe is essentially a liberal democrat at heart. He know that his lack of an effective mandate is a Damoclean sword hanging above him. More importantly Wickremesinghe know that the far reaching economic reforms he seeks to bring about could be seriously hampered by his lacking a proper mandate. Also Ranil realises that his securing a fresh firm mandate through elections will strengthen him politically and reinforce his economic reform task. Lending institutions and donor nations too would prefer to do business with a Govt possessing a solid mandate. As such he needs and wants a mandate sanctioning poll.
Four Possible Polls
There are four possible polls. Local Govt(LG) elections, Provincial Council(PC) elections, Parliamentary elections and a Presidential election. What Wickremesinghe will aim at is the election in which he or his party will do best. Politics is the art of the possible. So Ranil would naturally prefer a poll which would crown him as the “winner”.
The chances of the UNP or a UNP led coalition securing a sweeping victory at the LG or PC polls seems extremely remote. The opposition parties who are most likely to do well at these polls would use that victory to intensify demands for a Parliamentary election. Also a crushing defeat would undermine the President and his Govt and draw glaring attention to the question of a lack of a legitimate mandate.
The same applies to Parliamentary elections also. If elections are held soon, there is every chance that the SLPP will lose the slender majority it enjoys now. Since opposition parties are unwilling to cooperate with President Wickremesinghe, he has been compelled to depend upon the SLPP to push bills through. So if elections result in the SLPP and allies losing badly, the President will not have a supportive majority in the House. The victorious SJB and JVP may exert maximum possible pressure on the President. Besides Ranil has already assured the SLPP MPs that he would not dissolve Parliament early.
Thus LG,PC and Parliament elections are ruled out from the President’s perspective. This leaves only the Presidential election. Wickremesinghe regards Presidential hustings as the best bet to gain a mandate. It is only as executive president that he could authoritatively plan, coordinate, direct and execute his economic revival program best. A mandate obtained as President would strengthen and empower him politically. Ranil is now confident especially after the IMF boost, that he would win a Presidential election in 2024.
Unique Selling Proposition
Ranil perceives himself as a unique selling proposition in a Presidential election campaign. Given the stature and ability of his potential rivals, Wickremesinghe certainly towers above them. But then as Ranil knows very well, electoral success does not always favour the best and the brightest candidate. Finally there is the personal angle. The Presidency has for long eluded Ranil who has been branded a serial loser. As such he would very much like to be a President elected by the people before retiring from Politucs.
All signs therefore point to a Presidential election. Given the current political situation, there is every likelihood that the SLPP would not field a Presidential candidate in 2024 . It will contest the Parliamentary poll. As of now, the SLPP is aiming for the 2029 Presidential poll with Namal Rajapaksa as candidate. The SLPP would prefer Ranil to be President until 2029 as opposed to another. Therefore sections of the SLPP may overtly or covertly support Ranil.
Ranil Wickremesinghe is a lesser evil to the SLPP when compared to others like Premadasa, Dissanayake or Sarath Fonseka. If this scenario unfolds as stated Wickremesinghe would contest with the backing of the UNP,Minority parties and elements of the present SJB and SLPP.
Some UNP stalwarts and SLPP members have stated that an early Presidential election is on the cards.. The Constitution enables the incumbent President to call for an early Presidential election after completing 4 years in office, if he intends seeking re-election for a second term. Gotabaya Rajapaksa was elected in November 2019.Though he has resigned, the presidential term of office would have completed 4 years in November 2023.
Wickremesinghe succeeded Rajapaksa for “the unexpired period of the term of office of the President vacating office.” Hence Wickremesinghe should be able to call for an early election any time after November 2023. But then the Constitution also states that this provision applies only to Presidents elected by the people at an election. It does not apply to Presidents unelected by the people. Therefore Ranil cannot have an early presidential poll.
UNP sources however say that this could be altered by a Constitutional Amendment enabling the President to call for an early election. If the opposition parties are really genuine about early elections, they should support the bill to garner a two-thirds majority. If they refuse, then the opposition parties will be exposed as being insincere about polls, point out UNP circles. If there is no amendment, President Wickremesinghe will continue as usual. Instead of the first quarter of next year, the Presidential poll will be in the last quarter of 2024.
This then is the position as far as the Presidential election is concerned. Meanwhile TPA leader Mano Ganesan and SLMC leader Rauff Hakeem were engaged in an “amity”mission to bring about unity between Ranil Wickremesinghe and Sajith Premadasa with the Presidential elections in mind. It is leant reliably that Wickremesinghe was amenable, subject to some conditions. Ranil would be the Presidential candidate in 2024 backed by an alliance comprising the UNP, SJB and minority community parties. Sajith Premadasa would be Prime Minister. Ranil will retire in 2029 clearing the field for Sajith to become leader.
Apparently this proposal was welcomed by most SJB stalwarts like Thalatha Atukorale, Kabeer Hashim, Eran Wickramaratne, Harsha de Silva, Rajitha Senaratne and Rohini Wijerathne. But others like Ranjith Madduma Bandara,Tissa Attanayake, Imtiaz Bakeer Markar,Lakshman Kiriella, Sujeewa Senasinghe and Hirunika Premachandra opposed it. Members of the Premadasa family too did not like the idea. Finally Sajith Premadasa reportedly rejected the unity proposal. Upon hearing this Ranil Wickremesinghe too has hardened his stance.So Hakeem and Ganesan too have abandoned their unity moves for now.
D.B.S.Jeyaraj can be reached at email@example.com
This is an updated version of the “DBS Jeyaraj Column”appearing in the “Daily Mirror”dated March 25th 2023.It can be accessed here –