A year after Gota’s ouster, Lanka still not out of woods

People see Ranil Wickremesinghe as a man holding the proverbial tiger’s tail, unable to find alternatives to resurrect the island’s economy beyond borrowing from multilaterals
Image used for illustrative purposes only. (Express illustration | Soumyadip Sinha)
Image used for illustrative purposes only. (Express illustration | Soumyadip Sinha)

May 9 marked a watershed moment in Sri Lankan political history. It was the first anniversary of an elected president’s unceremonious ouster through a public uprising. It brought the powerful Rajapaksas to their knees, though temporarily, and highlighted the island’s governance crisis which resulted in an unprecedented financial crisis—the worst in the country’s post-Independence era.

A year ago, there was hope that the angry public protests that spilled onto the streets of Colombo had driven a vital point home: politicians should be held accountable. A year later, it is business as usual. It is almost as if the protests never happened, and the public never questioned the governance failure and corruption that caused the island’s economic collapse.

A year later, Sri Lanka is still struggling to come out of the woods, both economically and politically. The island today is home to millions who are disenchanted with the political tribe and are trying to leave their island of despair. There is nothing that generates a sense of hope or provides a reason to stay and contribute, despite a façade of normalcy that prevails.

This should have been the year for laying the groundwork for a resilient economy and restoring public faith in the presidency and legislature. There is unprecedented public outrage towards how the state is administered. People are angry that the lesson is not learnt, as the political elite turn a blind eye to the demands for systemic change. They find their demands crushed under the jackboots of the political elite. Meanwhile, one president was conveniently replaced by another, and the older order survived.

The incumbent president has brought the volatile situation under control. He has introduced a semblance of normalcy, ended the miles-long queues for fuel and food, put an end to the power cuts, and convinced the International Monetary Fund (IMF) to offer an Extended Fund Facility (EFF) for the island to come out of the current economic morass. A year later, Sri Lanka still finds itself bound by the old chains of borrowing from multilaterals and is on a short-term borrowing spree.

Sri Lanka is yet to develop a financial model to generate revenue, service the massive debts, and ensure essential supplies to the public. For this reason, people see Ranil Wickremesinghe as a man holding the proverbial tiger’s tail, unable to find alternative methods to resurrect the economy beyond borrowing from multilaterals.

There is little appreciation among the large majority for the kind of “normalcy” he has introduced, for it is founded on a policy of cracking down on protesters and curbing dissent. For this, laws are being drawn up, such as the counter-terror law, and the provisions of the Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA) and the Penal Code are unrepentantly used to forcefully gain the public’s silence.

A year later, Sri Lanka finds a president not elected by a popular vote but using all available tools to consolidate his power. There are lofty pledges to introduce transparent and accountable governance, South Asia’s best anti-corruption law, and reforms that befit a modern state. But the public expectations of President Wickremesinghe are significantly low. For starters, he is viewed as a western agent lacking the foresight and creativity to lead Sri Lanka out of the current crisis through a new policy, not the tried and failed IMF road. People view the EFF as a reckless step that only contributes to increasing an insurmountable burden of existing external debt. Besides, he is mistrusted for lacking the independence to drive vital political reforms due to his reliance on the Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP) for support. So far, the Rajapaksas appear to be supportive of the economic agenda he pushes, but there’s hardly any possibility that Wickremesinghe would be free to drive political reforms of the kind expected by the public, complete with strong anti-grant laws that could result in jail terms and assets recovery. Clearly, the Rajapaksas have their own expectations from the incumbency: to protect their interests in exchange for the presidency.

A year on, the reintroduction of the Rajapaksa project is in full swing, and the Rajapaksas are even making appearances from time to time, playing the victim card. They make flippant comments about the people’s protests and disregard the reasons that fuelled public outrage, ultimately bringing the powerful Rajapaksas down. There are no apologies. Instead, their ouster is portrayed as a failure of democracy. There is no offer to reflect on the mistakes and address the governance crisis. Instead, they repeat the mantra that Wickremesinghe was brought in to fix the economy and bring under control the “undemocratic public uprising” that forced Gotabaya Rajapaksa to resign and flee.

If public sentiments are not in his favour, as a recent poll has shown, Wickremesinghe is likely to form a political alliance with the SLPP to face the next set of elections. Collectively, they would brag about restoring law and order and essential supplies, and getting a breather through the IMF facility. In the next round of elections, Sri Lanka is destined to see a convenient but unholy alliance that keeps Wickremesinghe and the SLPP in one camp. Come presidential elections, it is likely that Basil Rajapaksa, possibly the most disliked Rajapaksa, will be Wickremesinghe’s running mate. This may not deliver the desired political result but will help the Rajapaksas keep power very close—and within the family.

What could possibly work in Wickremesinghe’s favour is the lack of solution-oriented politics in the island. Not that Wickremesinghe’s formula is a winning one, but the lack of alternatives offered by the key contenders, the National People’s Power (NPP) and the Samagi Jana Balawegaya (SJB), may frustrate the constituency. Except for fire-breathing criticism, Wickremesinghe has not been met with an agenda for reforms, or faced with leaders who are willing to take on the task.

If the Rajapaksas are playing the waiting game a year after the unceremonious ouster of Gotabaya, his successor is on a crafty mission to consolidate his power. How he fares and meets public aspirations will become evident in the coming months. How he delivers will determine his political future as well as that of his United National Party (UNP).

Dilrukshi Handunnetti

Award-winning journalist and lawyer. She is a founder and director of the Colombo-based Center for Investigative Reporting (CIR)

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