Explained: For 5th-time Lanka PM, political and economic challenge like no other

A month ago, in an interview to The Indian Express, Ranil Wickremesinghe said he would “stay out” if asked to become Prime Minister of Sri Lanka again, as he did not have the numbers to form a government. Wickremesinghe is the sole member of his United National Party (UNP) in parliament.

“I have not been asked (to become Prime Minister) and even if I were, I would stay out. Because what can I do? I’m a party of one, how can you run an administration with one? Parliament means you must have support. And numbers. Only the party with the largest numbers forms [the government]. I haven’t got that,” he said.

On Thursday, Wickremesinghe was sworn in as Prime Minister, proving that if a week is a long time in politics, a month is an era.

Soon afterward, responding to a question from a British journalist on how he could claim a mandate to run the country with his single parliamentary seat, he shot back: “In 1939, (Winston) Churchill had only four members backing him. How did he become the Prime Minister then? I have done the same. Know your history.”

This is Wickremesinghe’s fifth time in the office. Each of his earlier terms was truncated, and on two of those occasions he was dismissed by the President — by Chandrika Kumaratunga in 2004, and by Maithripala Sirisena in 2018. As Prime Minister of an interim government, his fifth term is also likely to be short.

In 2002, Wickremesinghe negotiated a ceasefire agreement with the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam. The war was the biggest challenge to Sri Lanka’s existence as a nation then. He did not survive in office long enough to see the ceasefire collapse. But the present economic-political crisis may prove to be his biggest challenge yet.

His appointment has been greeted with relief by those who see him as a safe pair of hands to provide political stability, paving the way for a resolution to the economic crisis. As PM from 2015 to 2018, he negotiated a $1.5 bn bailout from the IMF to avert a balance of payments crisis. Wickremesinghe, a nephew of the late President JR Jayewardene, who turned Sri Lanka into a free market economy, shares his uncle’s economic views, inspiring confidence among international partners and the old business and political elites of Colombo.

Among the first to congratulate him was the US Ambassador to Sri Lanka Julie Chang. “Looking forward to working with Ranil Wickremesinghe. His appointment as Prime Minister, and the quick formation of an inclusive government, are first steps to addressing the crisis and promoting stability. We encourage meaningful progress at the IMF and long-term solutions that meet the needs of all Sri Lankans,” she tweeted.

But even as he gets down to work on the economy, Wickremesinghe will be expected to address the political crisis centered on the popular anger against the Rajapaksa family and the demand that President Gotabaya Rajapaksa must step down — or he risks being seen as a collaborator with a regime that has run out of political capital. “GoGotaGo” could easily become “GoRanilGo”.

There was disbeli among the GoGotaGo protesters on Thursday that a leader whose party had failed to win a single seat in the 2020 elections, and who had made it to parliament as a nominated member (every party gets to nominate members on the basis of its share — the UNP got to nominate one member with its 2.15%), had been made Prime Minister.

The UNP was wiped out because of the collapse of Wickremesinghe’s 2015-18 term in office along with President Sirisena, the deadlock between them contributing to the failure to prevent the Easter terrorist bombings of 2019. Wickremesinghe is also blamed for failing to punish a key member of his government in a case of financial fraud known as the Central Bank bonds scam.

The fact is Wickremesinghe’s support in parliament will come from the discredited Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna, the Rajapaksa political vehicle. SLPP members who owe allegiance to Mahinda Rajapaksa, form his cabinet Cabinet. As if to underline this, within minutes of Wickremesinghe’s appointment, Rajapaksa, who resigned as Prime Minister on Monday — and is hiding from angry protesters at the Trincomalee naval base, and has been barred by a court from leaving the country — sent his felicitations. “Congratulations to the newly appointed Prime Minister of Sri Lanka. I wish you all the best as you navigate these troubled times.”

As he left the Gangaramaya Temple in Colombo where he had gone to offer prayers soon after being sworn in, Wickremesinghe was swarmed with questions about why he was supporting President Gotabaya Rajapaksa.

“You all voted for him, and now you want him to go home. I also don’t mind if he goes home, but my work is to see that everyone in the country has enough to eat, that there is no shortage of fuel or power in the country. What do you want?” Wickremesinghe bounced the question back to the media scrum.

But the question will return on Tuesday, when an opposition no-confidence motion against the President is to be taken up in Parliament. Though there is no provision in the Constitution for such a motion — the President can be removed only by impeachment — the Speaker allowed it to be submitted as a “motion of displeasure”.

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The Samagi Jana Balewegaya, a party made up mainly of former UNP members who rebelled against Wickremesinghe under the leadership of Sajith Premadasa, is spearheading the no-confidence motion. With 52 members, Premadasa is the leader of the opposition in the House.

Premadasa had refused to take up the Prime Ministership of an interim government until President Rajapaksa committed to stepping down. Premadasa wants the presidency abolished. The Rajapaksa deal with Wickremesinghe may have scuttled his plans.

President Rajapaksa has hinted in an address to the nation that he is ready to roll back some of his presidential powers to give the interim administration a free hand. However, demands for his resignation continue unabated on the streets of Colombo.


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