(Text of Editorial Appearing in “The Hindu” of May 17th 2022 Under the Heading “ Crisis and opportunity: On Sri Lanka political crisis”)
The adage ‘every crisis contains the seeds of an opportunity’ could not have been truer for anyone than for Sri Lanka’s Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe. The severe economic crisis, which set off indefinite protests against President Gotabaya Rajapaksa and his brother, (now former) Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa, has pitchforked Mr. Wickremesinghe to an office that he had no chance of occupying until last week.
Given the turmoil, Sri Lanka needed a government that would work towards stability and economic recovery. With Mahinda Rajapaksa resigning in the face of determined protests, and the Opposition leader unwilling to work under President Gotabaya, a rare opportunity opened up for Mr. Wickremesinghe.
The former premier’s political prospects had almost ended with the 2020 parliamentary election, when his United National Party won no seats, and he himself made it as its lone member in Parliament on the principle of representation in proportion to the total votes it had received across the nation.
Much of the UNP’s support base has also gone with Sajith Premadasa, his erstwhile party colleague, who now runs the main Opposition party, the Samagi Jana Balawegaya (SJB). Mr. Wickremesinghe finds himself in an extraordinary situation, as he is dependent on lawmakers of the Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP), the party of the Rajapaksas that is the target of public anger.
The SJB has offered conditional support to measures aimed at economic recovery.
Mr. Wickremesinghe brushed aside a question on whether he had the moral authority to hold his office, contending that his situation was no different from that of Winston Churchill becoming PM with just four members supporting him to stave off a crisis.
There are many questions on the political morality of his assuming office; there is some justification for popular resentment against him for easing the pressure on the President to resign.
However, the need to have a viable arrangement to tackle the economic crisis is quite urgent. He has spoken about putting together an international consortium to ensure financial assistance for the shortage-stricken country.
His only strength now is the goodwill of the international community, which solidly backed his efforts to bring about peace and development in Sri Lanka in 2001-02, when he negotiated a ceasefire agreement with the LTTE and held direct talks.
There is talk of speeding up political reforms, even to the point of abolishing the executive presidency through a fast-tracked constitutional amendment. Yet, such speculation about far-reaching changes does not inspire confidence, as many such opportunities in the past had been squandered.
Mr. Wickremesinghe has the additional burden of proving to his detractors that he is working for political stability and economic recovery and not for reviving the political fortunes of the Rajapaksas.