Sri Lanka is on the verge of complete collapse. There is both unprecedented political and economic turmoil as solutions still evade the island nation. Successive governments have only contributed to deepening the economic crisis, bringing the country to a standstill while triggering public outrage. It’s not surprising that no politician rushed to wear the thorny crown of crisis president following Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s speedy exit, except Ranil Wickremesinghe, a five times prime minister who had waited nearly three decades to become president.
Now that he has strategically moved his way up the ladder by winning the Rajapaksas’ support to garner 134 votes out of a total of 225, the 8th president of Sri Lanka has inherited insurmountable problems and an empty coffer, much of it of Rajapaksas’ making.
Months of protests have driven the powerful Rajapaksas into temporary retreat, and public rage against them runs high and is still easily ignitable. But none of these factors endears Wickremesinghe to the people, a liberal, west-leaning politician who, in the eyes of many, was a sellout. He appears to have more detractors than supporters, and his short tenure as president has come under severe criticism, both locally and internationally.
Wickremesinghe’s response to public protests has rubbed salt on public wounds and reduced his chances of winning public support to implement his ambitious and multi-pronged reforms agenda. In the eyes of many, Wickremesinghe is an extension of the corrupt and authoritarian Rajapaksa rule. The heavy use of military and police to “bring the situation under control” in classic authoritarian style has only caused an immediate rift between the new president and the public.
Wickremesinghe has made matters worse by trying to justify his strong-arm response with the Colombo-based diplomatic community, which saw the USA, UK and Canada promptly issuing public statements expressing concern. The International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Bank have also responded negatively, calling for immediate political stability in the island state. Fitch Ratings meanwhile claimed that while the Sri Lankan government’s parliamentary position appeared strong, public support for the government appeared weak. In this setting, Wickremesinghe appears to have ascended a ticking time bomb, compounded by his lack of mass appeal to win essential public trust to charter a new course.
On August 3, President Wickremesinghe reconvened parliament to announce his policy statement. He reiterated some of his well-known political positions, including the need to foster a Sri Lankan identity, economic and social reform, clipping presidential powers, depoliticisation of public institutions and broad constitutional reform.
His measured speech, ambitious and hopeful, marked a few departures from the UNP’s traditional standpoint. For one, he recognised the need for a modern economic policy, an economy that centres on the Indian Ocean and is capable of recreating the island’s historical role as a trading hub, known once as the Granary of the East. “Before the end of the 21st Century, the Indo-Pacific Region will be the most powerful economic domain in the world. The strategic location of our country is extremely important. We should make the best use of this favourable position,” he told parliament.
Perhaps the biggest surprise in his address was the acknowledgement of the defects in foreign policy. His own party, the UNP, has been faulted for a pro-west approach to the exclusion of Asia with the exception of Japan. Rajapaksas, on the other hand, lacked even a faulty foreign policy and alienated the world due to its obsessive reliance on China, which funded several mega infrastructure projects as well as vanity projects like the Mattala Rajapaksa International Airport (MRIA).
President Wickremesinghe appears to propose a new policy that is akin to the late premier Sirimao Bandaranaike’s non-aligned foreign policy. “Due to the instability of the foreign policy, we faced many disadvantages and setbacks in the international arena. All countries of the world are our friends. We have no enemies. We do not belong to any group,” he said while singling out India to offer Sri Lanka’s gratitude for “offering a lifeline”.
But for Sri Lanka, implementing such a policy amidst serious geopolitical competition will be a litmus test. Colombo’s current soft pivot to India is not lost on China. At some point, it is likely to resist Colombo’s reliance on Delhi for financial and humanitarian assistance as both countries seek strategic influence over the Indian Ocean island. It will not be easy to shake China, Sri Lanka’s single largest creditor. Reeling from a debt crisis, Sri Lanka has sought a staff-level agreement with the IMF, but China was quick to advise not to swallow the IMF pill of debt restructuring, which comes with painful austerity measures but to add new debt to pay off the existing loans.
Thus, Wickremesinghe’s true test as a leader will come in the form of foreign policy and debt servicing. In its highly vulnerable state, these competing geopolitical interests can exert enough influence to the detriment of Sri Lanka, which needs an opportunity and geopolitical freedom to navigate a critical new path as a nation.
His second biggest challenge will be to garner enough support outside the parliament for the proposed reforms and make it a national exercise. For the public, it is near impossible to treat Wickremesinghe as an independent leader who is not an extension of the Rajapaksas, even though his ascendancy is largely due to the political crisis that drove the Rajapaksas out of office. This mistrust and the belief that Wickremesinghe stands to defend his class through the use of strong-arm tactics is not lost on the public. Even if he were to come up with the best agenda for Sri Lanka’s economic resurgence, it would still not work, without broad consensus. Wickremesinghe’s request for other political parties to join an all-party government has not received a good response.
Amid all this, Gotabaya Rajapaksa, who fled the country on July 12, is expected to return in August. Wickremesinghe should allow him entry. Instead of worrying about triggering fresh protests, Wickremesinghe’s focus should now be on forensic audits, recovery of stolen assets, and holding them responsible for the island’s devastating economic collapse.
Executive Director of the Colombo-based Center for Investigative Reporting (CIR) and a lawyer by training