For his admirers, Ranil Wickremesinghe is the president Sri Lanka has lost and found. The late former minister Mangala Samaraweera once described Wickremesinghe as the best president Sri Lanka never had.
In his previous two outings as a presidential candidate, the victory was his, but on both occasions Wickremesinghe lost through no fault of his own. In 1999, opinion polls predicted Wickremesinghe’s victory at the presidential election, but a botched assassination attempt by the separatist Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam on his rival and then President Chandrika Kumaratunga on December 18, just two days before the election, created a sympathy wave and helped the severely wounded president to win with a record majority.
Again in 2005, Wickremesinghe was confident he would win the presidential bid with the Tamils voting overwhelmingly for him. But on the day of the election, an alleged secret deal between the LTTE and rival candidate Mahinda Rajapaksa’s campaign managers saw separatist leader Velupillai Prabhakaran ordering the Tamils to boycott the election. The result: Wickremesinghe lost the election by a narrow margin.
Had he won the 2005 presidential election, he, too, like President Mahinda Rajapaksa, would have ended the war, but in a more dignified manner. He would have fully utilised the domestic support and the favorable international environment, leaving no room for war crimes allegations.
He led his United National Party to victory at two parliamentary elections and became prime minister, but on both occasions, the then executive presidents — Chandrika Kumaratunga and Maithripala Sirisena – did not give him a free hand to implement his development programmes largely due to their fear that he would emerge stronger to win the next presidential election.
Unfairly denied the presidency twice, Wickremesinghe bade his time, perhaps believing that the wheels of justice, though turn slowly, will grind exceedingly fine for him.
His political misfortunes largely stem from his passive or not-so-aggressive approach to politics. He allows his opponents to pejoratively define who he is, yet would not fight back.
Many left him and the party, saying he did not listen to their advice and he lacked the ability to plan out strategies to oust his opponents from power. He would want the coconut, but still would not climb the tree to pluck it. He would rather patiently wait under the tree for the coconut to fall. But this was a too-simplistic description of his complex political character. Populism and demagoguery are not his traits. Yet, make no mistake; if endowed with executive powers, he could be surgically authoritarian, despite his credentials to uphold democracy and constitutionalism. Some of his opponents think he is more cunning than the Old Fox, a reference to wily President J.R. Jayewardene, Wickremesinghe’s political mentor.
Although ensconced in the office of the executive president yesterday, the sword of Damocles hangs over his head. Wickremesinghe is a political prisoner of a hostile parliament where his party has only one seat. The 134 parliamentarians who voted for him at the July 20 presidential election in Parliament are not bound to listen to his dictates. In fact, the Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP) which voted for him can turn against him and even impeach him with the support of the opposition MPs if his actions are seen to be detrimental to its political agenda.
In this political marriage of convenience with the SLPP, Wickremesinghe’s task is to restore economic stability and provide immediate relief to the suffering people. And of all the parliamentarians, it was he who has the experience, knowledge, vision and international acceptance to undertake the task.
Unlike his predecessor Gotabaya Rajapaksa, a political rookie, Wickremesinghe understands the economic issues and the consequences of money printing, artificially maintaining the value of the rupee vis-à-vis the rising dollar and having a huge fiscal deficit. He also understands geopolitics and the fallout of international crises such as the Russia-Ukraine War. The other day, he called on the West to lift sanctions on Russia, saying they were severely affecting developing countries and aggravating the global food and energy crises.
With the SLPP holding the reins of the presidency, Wickremesinghe will mainly focus on matters economic and will not have the luxury to go after corruption and criminal cases against the Rajapaksas. He will not be able to prove wrong Galle Face Green protesters’ allegation that he was placed on the hot seat mainly to protect the Rajapaksas.
The protesters or the Aragalaya hijackers say the July 20 Parliament vote to elect Wickremesinghe as president was a distortion of the people’s mandate and does not reflect the will of the people. But Aragalaya hijackers should also know they, too, do not represent the people and they are not the microcosm of the macro-Aragalaya movement comprising every suffering citizen of this country.
Adherence to the constitution and electing a president are in no way a distortion of the people’s mandate. Parliament is supreme and its mandate ends only with the dissolution.
The core of the social contract — the foundation of the state — is that governance should be in accordance with agreed-upon laws. People’s power can only be legitimized if the ruler acts in violation of the social contract or the constitution.
President Gotabaya Rajapaksa failed to honour the contract, in terms of which he was required to ensure economic security of the people. His omissions and policies led to the shortages of food, fuel, and cooking gas while sending the prices of almost all items beyond the reach of the poor and the middle-income people.
The Aragalaya started with a give-us-our-daily-bread call. It was only subsequently that the Aragalaya demands included an end to corruption, the call for the resignation of the corrupt and incompetent Rajapaksa government, and thorough investigations into the 2019 Easter Sunday massacre, other criminal cases and the money siphoned off the country and stacked in offshore accounts.
The Aragalaya or the protest movement was justified in its demand that Gotabaya Rajapaksa should resign. Now that he has resigned, the Aragalaya should adopt a wait-and-see approach, giving the new president time and space to bring relief to the people. If it does not do so, then it is no better than a bunch of troublemakers seeking to enact soemone’s political agenda.
The silent protesters of the Araglaya – the faction that does not seek cheap media publicity or harbour hidden political agendas – believe Wickremesinghe should be given an opportunity to put the economy back on track. But the increasingly unruly Aragalaya hijackers insist they will continue the protest and occupy the Galle Face Green and the entrance of the Presidential Secretariat until Wickremesinghe is ousted. It appears that the Aragalaya hijacker have become a law unto themselves and do not seem to respect the rule of law. They expect government leaders to genuflect before them and carry out their commands. This is not Aragalaya.
Their stance will only prolong the economic and political instability, deny the country assistance it hopes to get from the International Monetary Fund, other donor agencies and friendly countries, and precipitate a complete closure of the country within weeks. If this is what the Aragalaya hijackers want at a time when international assistance is at hand, then they are on a path to launch a criminal coup.