Return of Ranil : Remarkable Resilience of Premier Wickremesinghe. -Part Three
Let me rewind back to my boyhood when I first read the fable about the scorpion and frog which I believe is of Russian origin. The scorpion which cannot swim wanted to cross the river. So the scorpion begged the frog to carry him across. The frog refused saying the scorpion may sting while he was ferrying him across. The scorpion replies he would not do that because the frog will then die resulting in the drowning of the scorpion too. Therefore it was not in the best interests of the scorpion to sting the frog while going across the river.
The frog thinks things through and finds the scorpion’s argument rational and logically sensible. So the frog accedes to the request and swims across the river with the scorpion on his back. Midway across the river, the scorpion whose sting is in the tail, strikes suddenly. The stung frog in a state of paralysis begins to drown. The scorpion dislodged from the frog’s back also is drowning. The dying frog is baffled as to why the scorpion has acted irrationally and doomed them both. “Why, why? asks the frog.The scorpion replies , “ I don’t know. I couldn’t resist the urge.It’s in my character.It is my nature”. And so both perished.
Let me now fast forward to the present. His excellency, Nandasena Gotabaya Rajapaksa, the executive president of Sri Lanka will reach the age of 73 on June 20th,2022. One does not know whether Gota – as he is generally known – will celebrate his birthday by lighting candles or cutting a cake. Given the dire straits into which he has plunged Sri Lanka into , there is no cause to celebrate.But then Gota may have cause to celebrate for having survived politically so far despite the widespread protests demanding his exit from the presidency.
Let us not forget that Gotabaya Rajapaksa was the original target of the protests.. In fact he was the sole target for quite a while. “Gota Go Home”was the powerful slogan around which protesters of different hues mobilised. The “Gota Go Gama” makeshift village set up at Galle Face Green, remains still as the symbol of the protests. There is no doubt that the “Gota Go Home” protests shook Sri Lankan society for weeks.
President’s House in Fort
Yet the painful reality is that Gotabaya continues to remain the executive President of Sri Lanka. Instead of going home as demanded, Gota has relocated from his private residence at Mirihana to his official residence ,”President’s House” in Fort. The presidential secretariat at Galle Face too is now functioning inside the President’s House.
It may be recalled that in the past , Governors General resided at Queen’s House as the President’s House was known then. Their offices too were in Queens House. When Governor-General of Ceylon William Gopallawa became Republican Sri Lanka’s President (non executive), he too had his office at President’s House.It was the first executive President J.R.Jayewardene who converted the old Parliament building by the Beira lake into a presidential secretariat after a new Parliament was constructed on an islet in the Diyawanna Oya.
So it could be argued in lighter vein that the Gota Go Home protest has merely resulted in Gotabaya Rajapaksa becoming firmly ensconced as a functioning executive president in his rightful official residence -President’s House. Furthermore instead of going home as demanded, Gota has been sending quite a lot of other people home . Gota has demonstrated that he is capable of sacrificing anyone or any principle to prolong his stay in power.
Alfred Tennyson’s Brook
Key officials like Jayasundara, Cabraal and Attygalle have been made to quit. Gota’s own brother Mahinda Rajapaksa has been compelled to resign as Prime Minister. His siblings Chamal and Basil as well as nephews Namal and Shasheendra are no longer ministers. Brother Basil has even resigned from Parliament. Most of the Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna(SLPP) stalwarts have been stripped of their ministerial portfolios. The protesters wanted Gota to go but Gota remains while others go or are made to go. In spite of the protests, Gota goes on like Alfred Tennyson’s brook – ”men may come and men may go but I go on forever.”
There are two key factors in this exercise of power retention by Gota. The first is the appointment of United National Party(UNP) leader and veteran politician Ranil Wickremesinghe as Prime minister and the cobbling together of a “new” government comprising members or erstwhile members of different political parties. It seemed that the president had taken a backseat and entrusted the formidable task of economic recovery to the Prime Minister. This was welcomed by many because Wickremesinghe is arguably the best equipped political leader to deal with the economic crisis. He enjoys much credibility internationally among powerful countries as well as accredited financial institutions.
The second factor was Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s well -publicized pledge that he would relinquish powers of the executive presidency in a phased out manner. Firstly he would do away with the regressive 20th Constitutional amendment and bring back the progressive 19th Constitutional amendment.This would dimmish presidential powers. Secondly he would abolish the executive presidency after economic stability is restored. It appeared that the working arrangement between Gota and Ranil was based on this understanding.
Ranil was Manna from Heaven to Gota
The appointment of Ranil Wickremesinghe as Prime Minister was like manna from heaven to Gotabaya Rajapaksa. The pressure on Gota was reduced greatly. It provided him a reprieve.Though the situation was essentially the same, there was an atmosphere of change. A state of comparative stability seemed to emerge after the advent of Ranil as premier. The following paragraph excerpted from a newspaper article by Jehan Perera , the executive director of the National Peace Council, sums up the situation aptly –
“Ironically, the appearance of stability in the political domain has increased in the aftermath of UNP leader Ranil Wickremesinghe’s appointment as prime minister. Under him it appears to be business as usual. He has stolen the thunder of the Aragalaya. The promise of an all-party interim government with a core team of 15 ministers to reboot the country’s economy has become a mirage. The government has continued to add to the number of ministers, the latest being Dhammika Perera, who is a businessman of wealth and repute as financial counsellor to the ruling politicians. The expectations of a collapse of the government, which were heightened with the breakdown of law and order and mob attacks a month ago, seem to be no longer considered a threat. But the fly in the ointment is that the economic situation continues to worsen by the day.”
Prime minister Ranil Wickremesinghe’s appointment was hailed widely by the International community. Moreover the initiatives taken by Wickremesinghe after assuming office also made many people confident that the economic crisis was being tackled systematically at last. This contrasted sharply with the direction-less drift that seemed to prevail when Gota was at the helm. Efforts to usher in a new 21st Constitutional amendment that would re-introduce the 19th Constitutional amendment also raised hopes. The general impression was that the executive president’s powers were being red and that Gota would gracefully relinquish office in due course.
President’s Bloomberg Interview
This sense of sanguinity received a jolt after President Rajapaksa’s interview to Bloomberg in the first week of June. That interview made three things clear. The first was that Gota was not going to let Ranil handle the economic recovery task alone as indicated earlier .Instead the President was going to queer the pitch further by involving himself in areas which were best left to Wickremesinghe who was both the premier and finance minister. Gota was against cutting down the numbers in public services or the armed forces. Also he was reportedly interacting with foreign countries to secure finances despite his utter lack of credibility.
The second was that Gota was not prepared to step down as President before his full term was completed. The back- tracking president was going to stay put until 2024. The third was that Gotabaya was not going to let the proposed 21st Amendment see the light of day in its present form. He was firmly in favour of the executive presidency and mocked the notion of sharing powers with the Prime Minister in his Bloomberg interview. Here are relevant excerpts from the Bloomberg report filed by Anusha Ondaatjie and Sudhir Ranjan Sen-
“President Gotabaya Rajapaksa vowed to finish the remaining two years in his term despite months long street protests calling for his ouster, but won’t stand for re-election as he focuses on fixing a financial mess that tipped Sri Lanka into its worst-ever economic crisis.”
Mandate for Five Years.
“I can’t go as a failed president,” Rajapaksa said Monday in a wide-ranging interview at his official residence in Colombo, his first with a foreign media organization since the crisis unfolded. “I have been given a mandate for five years. I will not contest again.”
“The president said he wanted to replicate his previous successful stints serving the nation. Gotabaya Rajapaksa oversaw the urban development authority and was Sri Lanka’s defence secretary under then-President Mahinda Rajapaksa, when they crushed a 30-year civil war in 2009.”
“Gotabaya Rajapaksa was also skeptical about the success of a planned amendment to the constitution, which seeks to contain the executive presidency. Cabinet is due to approve the proposals as early as Monday, which would rollback wide-ranging powers Gotabaya Rajapaksa pushed through parliament shortly after he was elected president in 2019.”
“Either the presidency should be abolished or the parliament is kept out of governing, “Gotabaya Rajapaksa said.
“What is this executive (powers) of the president? My personal opinion is that if you have a presidency he must have full powers. Otherwise abolish executive presidency and go for full Westminster-style parliament.”
Can’t Have a Mixed System
“You can’t have a mixed system,” he said. “I experienced this and now know. People may blame me when I tell this but that’s the truth.”
Commenting on the economic situation President Rajapaksa reportedly said as follows –
“We have appointed financial and legal advisers (for a debt restructure) but that is for the capital markets. Bilaterals we have to go individually; our major loans are from China, Japan, India and the Paris Club.”
“I have requested help from India and China. I personally spoke to the leaders and wrote to them. Then I have spoken to Middle Eastern leaders personally like Qatar, UAE especially, and want to speak to Saudi and Oman to get help for long term contracts for supply of crude oil.”
“The subsidy system will have to go. We cannot cut down on public servants or the military, we can decrease by cutting down on recruitment.”
Media reports about the envisaged 21st amendment also gave rise to much disappointment and disillusionment among people desiring the elimination of 20 A and restoration of 19 A. A strong lobby opposing such moves emerged within ruling SLPP party MP’s. Reports also suggested that President Gotabaya had refused to accept any whittling down of the powers of the executive presidency as long as he held presidential office.
21st Amendment Draft Bill
Cabinet approval of the 21st Amendment draft bill was getting delayed.There were also reports that Justice Minister Wijedasa Rajapakshe was modifying the original draft in order to win the support of SLPP parliamentarians. In a further twist SLPP General Secretary and MP Sagara Kariyawasam reprimanded the Prime Minister publicly saying Ranil was assigned the task of economic salvage and not political reform. He wanted the PM to focus on the economy and not the Constitution.
It was becoming painfully clear to many that Gotabaya Rajapaksa was being true to his nature.In keeping with his authoritarian character, Gota was not going to reduce presidential powers or quit the presidency early. Sri Lanka was therefore condemned to be under executive president Rajapaksa’s rule for two more years at least, despite a robust protest movement demanding “Gota Go Home”.
Former Cabinet minister, speaker and present chairman of the National Movement for Social Justice, Karu Jayasuriya, struck a responsive chord with many an anxious Sri Lankan heart when he issued a hard-hitting statement earlier this week. Karu Jayasuriya called upon President Rajapaksa to implement the promised reforms immediately. He also requested the govt to not enrage the people further by presenting various excuses.Karu also warned the gov to not underestimate the rising opposition against it.
Karu Jayasuriya’s Statement
The full text of the statement made by Mr. Karu Jayasuriya is as follows:
“Today I would like to recall once again how our head of state assured the Secretary-General of the United Nations and the international community that he would protect our country’s democracy and the human rights of all Sri Lankans. He also quite publicly stated he would see to the re-enactment of the 19th Amendment in parliament, and claimed he will not object to the abolishment of the executive presidency. Additionally, the President also pledged to the country’s people and its religious leaders that a new constitution would be adopted within a year of coming into power and the provision allowing dual citizens to hold parliamentary seats will be removed.”
“It must be emphasised that these promises were given by none other than the President of the Republic of Sri Lanka. However, he has failed to deliver to date. No constitution has been brought forward and the promise has been limited to mere words.”
“One must question then if the international community will trust a head of state that has openly violated promises and assurances given before the world to the people of his own country. Will his countrymen put their trust in him? Will investors trust him? Will those who deal with our country on various levels trust him?
“We are ashamed and embarrassed to point out these facts but it must be done as the Sri Lankan government is openly violating the many promises made to its people at its inception. The President must realise these actions would only bring disrepute to not only himself but also to the Sri Lankan people he represents.”
“It is the view of the majority that the people’s representatives and the public are being forced to live under a dictatorial, cruel and barbaric regime that blatantly violates the principles of democracy as long as the 20th Amendment to the parliament remains in force. The President has powers beyond the judiciary, while the people’s representatives are helpless without power. One man controls the fate of an entire population of over 22 million.”
Helpless and Friendless
“Today there is strong opposition to the 20th Amendment in the country. According to surveys carried out, religious leaders, as well as 82% of the population, believe that the country was destroyed by this Draconian constitution, and therefore it should be scrapped immediately. Quoting a UN report, the weekend papers have reported that nearly five million people are living in poverty while 56,000 children are malnourished. Today we have been left helpless before the world. We are friendless. The country has no recognition and elicits no respect. Recognition and respect cannot be forced. Instead, it must be earned.”
“Therefore, we call on the government, led by the President, to implement the promised reforms immediately as we have observed the increasing interest regarding these matters among the public.We make these comments with great responsibility.”
“We, therefore, request the government to not enrage the people further by presenting various excuses. We hear the same calls from across the country, the struggle and the protests. These calls will only grow stronger. Therefore, we ask the government to not underestimate the rising opposition against it.”.
Frog and Scorpion Fable
Now let me return to the fable about the scorpion and the frog that I wrote about at the beginning of this article. When the scorpion pointed out that it would not sting because he too would drown if the frog perished seemed logically sound to the frog. He felt secure and carried the scorpion on his back.But the scorpion being true to its nature, struck midway, and both creatures died.
Likewise Ranil too may have felt quite secure when he accepted Gotabaya’s offer. Ranil consenting to serve as premier earned Gotabaya a reprieve. The onus of repairing the afflicted economy was placed on Ranil. If Gotabaya was a rational politician, he would have understood that his best option was to step back and let Ranil face the arduous challenge of salvaging the economy. Gota’s credibility is zero internationally. Legally,he may be president but has no legitimacy. Also it is in Gota’s enlightened self-interest to disempower the executive presidency and gradually abolish it. By doing so he could make a dignified exit as the man who finally dismantled JR’s legacy.
But then Gota is Gota just as the scorpion in the fable is the scorpion. Being true to his nature, he is not willing to let go of power. Neither is he willing to let the Premier spearhead the economic recovery project or share powers with the PM. There are many reports of duplication. For instance conferences with tourism sector officials atr convened by the Prime Minister and President. Contradictory directives are issued.
Former President Maithripala Sirisena has stated publicly that there is growing animosity between President Gotabaya and Premier Ranil..The frog has not been stung yet but there are many tell-tale signs that the scorpion’s tail is twitching to strike. All these matters including the future of the Gotabaya -Ranil partnership would be discussed in detail in the forthcoming , fourth part of this article.
DBS Jeyaraj can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
This is an updated version of the DBS Jeyaraj Column article appearing in the “Daily Mirror”of June 18th 2022.It can be accessed here-