Will the Economic “Good News” From Paris and Beijing Help Ranil Win the 2024 Presidential Poll in Sri Lanka?



Ranil Wickremesinghe was appointed Prime Minister on 12 May 2022 by the then president Gotabaya Rajapaksa. Sri Lanka was in the grip of a debilitating economic crisis then. The “Aragalaya”(struggle) protest movement was raging. The new premier addressed the nation through a special statement on 16 May 2022. In that Wickremesinghe referred to Bertolt Brecht’s play “The Caucasian Chalk Circle”. This is what he said then –

“I am undertaking a dangerous challenge. In the Caucasian Chalk Circle, Grusha crossed the broken rope bridge carrying a child that was not her own. This is an even more difficult undertaking. The precipice is deep and its bottom cannot be seen. The bridge is made of thin glass and there is no handrail. I am wearing shoes with sharp nails that cannot be removed. My task is to safely take the child to the other side………I am accepting this challenge for our nation. My goal and dedication is not to save an individual, a family, or a party. My objective is to save all the people of this country and the future of our younger generation.”

Even as Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe tried to steer the ship of state amidst choppy waters to a safe haven, the “Gota Go Hope”protests escalated. This resulted in President Gotabaya Rajapaksa fleeing the country and resigning the presidency from abroad. Ranil became acting president. On 20 July 2022 Wickremesinghe was elected President by members of Parliament. 134 out of 225 MPs voted for him. He was sworn in as Executive President on 21 July.

The new president restored law and order thereby stabilising a volatile situation. Thereafter with the support of some ministers and state ministers ,President Wickremesinghe began tackling the economic situation in tandem with the Central Bank. Considerable progress was made. Opposition politicians and sections of the intelligentsia and media failed to acknowledge this. Instead they engaged in constant criticism. The Ranil Wickremesinghe caravan however kept moving on despite barking dogs.

When Ranil Wickremesinghe took over , Sri Lanka was a bankrupt nation. Ranil’s mission was to extricate the country out of the economic morass it was in. Ranil’s vision was to lay the foundation of economic prosperity for the country.

Red Letter Day

26 June 2024 was a red letter day for Sri Lanka. On that day an agreement was concluded in Paris with the official creditors committee(OCC). Simultaneously another agreement was signed in Beijing with China’s Exim bank. The agreements marked the end to Lanka’s debt re-structuring negotiations. Sri Lanka was “temporarily” out of the red.

A jubilant Wickremesinghe announced the good news to the nation through a special statement on June 26th. In that he referred once again to Brecht’s Caucasian Chalk Circle. Here are excerpts –

“When we assumed responsibility for the country two years ago, I emphasized that we had a very challenging path ahead. Using the metaphor from the play “The Caucasian Chalk Circle”, I illustrated that we had to navigate a precarious journey across a metaphorical fallen vine bridge over a terrifying, bottomless chasm.”
:Despite these conditions, I accepted the challenge without any preconditions. I believed in my ability to save our country and its people from the economic abyss.”

“I made a promise that day, and I have safely guided the child named Mother Sri Lanka through treacherous waters. What has transpired since then?Much like the tale of The Caucasian Chalk Circle, those who once hesitated to shield the child during difficult times, those who offered no support, now clamour to claim the child’s rights. Even before we have crossed the perilous vine bridge, they vie to seize the child, tugging in every direction.”

“Yet, as we know from the Caucasian Chalk Circle, the rightful claim to the child belongs to the true mother. In the words of Grusha from the play: Things should belong to those who do well by them, Wagons to good drivers that they may be well driven……….”

Chalk Circle’s Grusha

I would like to strike a personal note at this juncture. Ranil’s imaginative use of the Chalk circle’s Grusha’s perilous walk across the rope bridge carrying a baby as a metaphor to denote his challenging task of salvaging Lanka’s economy strikes a responsive chord in me. Hence the focus on Ranil’s references to Grusha in May 2022 and June 2024.

I wrote an article about Wickremesinghe becoming Prime Minister in the “Daily Mirror”of 21 May 2022. One of the responses I received then was from eminent author and distinguished emeritus professor Yasmine Gooneratne. This is what she wrote then –

Dear Mr Jeyaraj,

Writing to you after many years of reading your articles, I am taking this opportunity of expressing my satisfaction that you exist as a fair and insightful commentator on our political scene.
Your piece in the DAILY MIRROR of today is exemplary. Don’t go away, whatever happens. Grusha may never carry that baby across the river, but at least her attempt to do so has been recorded.
Stay safe and well. We can’t do without you.

Yasmine Gooneratne

Professor Gooneratne’s response indicated that Ranil Wickremesinghe’s use of Grusha as a metaphor had impacted on her positively. Prof. Goneratne passed away in February this year. Were she alive today,there is no doubt that she would have been very happy about Grusha reaching safety with the baby.

Clarion Call

President Wickremesinghe being naturally elated at having reached an important goal, utilised the special statement to take swipes against his political detractors and rivals. Although Ranil is yet to formally declare his candidacy for the presidential election, he issued a clarion call to the people asking them indirectly for their support. This is what the President stated –

“Given this context, I pose a crucial question: Will you move forward with me, who comprehended the problem from its inception, offered practical solutions, and delivered results? Or will you align with those grappling in the dark, still struggling to grasp the issues?

Will you stay the course towards a brighter future for yourself and the nation? Or will you opt for a different path?We are all aware of the perils of veering off course or choosing the wrong path. Therefore, make the right decision. You have the full right and freedom to make that choice.”

Independent Candidate

This column has in several past articles stated that President Ranil Wickremesinghe would seek re-election as President this year as a non -party Common candidate.(Nirpaakshika Podhu Apekshaya). In effect he would be an independent candidate backed by a group of political parties, Political party dissidents, individual MPs and political organizations. Despite the backing of this alliance (or even alliances) Wickremesinghe will be an independent and not an alliance candidate.

Ranil has opened an independent election office on Flower road early this month. This office will oversee and coordinate his election campaign. In addition a network of other election offices too have been opened and assigned specific tasks. These include an office for a team of political and propaganda strategists from the UK. A pro-Ranil propaganda campaign will swing into full gear when Rani openly throws his hat into the presidential contest ring this month (July)

A sign of what lies in store in this regard became apparent last week. Prior to the June 26 announcement, the Sri Lankan public was regaled with cryptic posters. They said “Aaranchiya Subhai” meaning good news.. Tamil posters said “ithoa Or Natseithi”(here is good news).

The suspense created by these posters ended on a positive note when President Wickremesinghe’s special statement broke the good news on the economic front. The “good news”was hailed with the lighting of crackers, fireworks displays, distribution of milk rice and staging of musical events. The country was placed in a celebratory mode and mood.

Not Out Of The Woods Yet

It must be noted however that despite the feel good feeling about debt re-structuring, Lanka is not out of the woods yet economically. What has been gained is a respite or time. External debt payments have been deferred for four years. Thereafter we have to begin repaying them over an extended 15 year period at lower interest rates with a 7 % haircut.

These agreements are with the Paris Club member states and the Chinese Exim bank. Furthermore Lanka needs to finalize agreements with the commercial external creditors including the ISB holders and the China Development Bank (CDB). There is optimism about a 30%haircut in this respect.

Thus it could be seen that Sri Lanka has many more miles to go before the Island nation is on firm ground economically. Ranil and his ministers and officials have earned time to put the economy right. This has been achieved by adhering to IMF requirements while not overburdening the people too much. What has to be done is for the country to use this interlude to salvage and revive the economy. For this sound,prudent political leadership is needed. Who then can fit this bill?

Ranil Wickremesinghe stands out in this regard. Among the current crop of Lanka’s frontline political leaders, only Ranil Wickremesinghe seems capable of facing this challenge. Ranil towers above the rest like Gulliver among the Lilliputians. There are two strong points in his favour.

Already In The Saddle

Firstly Ranil is not out there promising to do things if elected.He is already in the saddle facing up to the challenge. He accepted a leadership position when the country was in turmoil and proved his worth by easing the situation to some extent. The country cannot forget the queues and shortages of the Gotabaya era that easily. Therefore Ranil is the best person to be at the helm while the country continues its journey of economic recovery. He is at an advantage over other presidential aspirants like Sajith Premadasa and Anura Kumara Dissanayake in this.

Secondly none of the potential presidential contenders have demonstrated their abilty to face up to this economic challenge in a constructive manner. Premadasa and Dissanayake talk a lot but have not presented any suggestion or proposal as a better alternative to the economic upliftment path followed by Wickremesinghe. They merely find fault with whatever the Govt does and try to score brownie points like schoolboys in a classroom debate.

Khaiyadasa and Khaiyanayake

The Wendy Whatmore elocution type phraseology of Sajith and the pseudo-leftist rhetoric of Anura have not gone down that well with the masses.Both are seen as glib talkers and not real doers. There are references in lighter vein to Premadasa and Dissanayake. The former is called “Khaiyadasa” and the latter “Khaiyanayake”. There is saying about an ounce of action being better than a ton of talk. Compared to the verbal bombast of Sajith and Anura,Ranil is seen as a man of action.

This column has stated earlier that the forthcoming presidential lection will be a clash of personalities and not a contest among political parties. There was a time when Wickremesinghe was ridiculed by his opponents as a serial loser and as “Mr.Bean”. Today the situation is different. Wickremesinghe is perceived as a winner because he has proved his worth. Ranil Wickremesinghe’s unique selling proposition (USP) is Ranil Wickremesinghe himself.

Man of the Moment

This is why Wickremesinghe’s supporters primarily project Ranil in their propaganda efforts. The good news campaign was followed up with the “Me Welawata Ranil Thamai” (Ranil is the man at this moment or time)campaign. It is very likely that the presidential election campaign would hinge around the necessity to give five more years to Ranil to continue with his economic renaissance project for Sri Lanka.

Economic Relief

Though things look rosy for Ranil, some words of caution need to be added. The economic respite gained and its positive significance can only satisfy or impress a certain category of people. What the overwhelming number of our suffering people need is economic relief. The double whammy of the COVID pandemic and the “Viyathmaga”inspired economic policies of the Rajapaksa regime have made more than 70 % of the people- poor,poorer and poorest.

The ”good news” from Paris and Beijing will be meaningless to the people unless they see it affecting their lives in real terms. Right now there are several measures being adopted to provide some economic support to the under-privileged vulnerable sections of society. Currently it is this segment that is the “majority” in Sri Lanka regardless of race,religion,caste or creed. In the final analysis, Ranil’s electoral success depends on the support of this impoverished majority which has to believe in the economic good news.

Sincere Polls Campaign

Therefore the challenge for Ranil Wickremesinghe and his supporters is to genuinely convince these people that there is indeed good news and that enabling Ranil to continue for another term would result in more good news in the concrete. The people must feel that their situation in 2024 has improved when compared to the 2022 situation. They must be inspired with confidence that their situation would improve further with Wickremesinghe at the helm. In short Ranil Wickremesinghe needs to win the hearts and minds of the people through a sensible,sensitive and above all a sincere polls campaign if he is to win the 2024 presidency.

D.B.S.Jeyaraj can be reached at dbsjeyaraj@yahoo.com

This article appears in the “DBS Jeyaraj Column”of the “Daily Mirror”dated July 1st 2024.It can be accessed here –