The primary target of the protest movement was the former president. It was he who was held primarily responsible, as the political leader holding the most power, for the economic crisis in the country. There were other reasons as well, such as his ill-advised decision to ban chemical fertilisers and convert Sri Lankan agriculture to organic status overnight. This policy brought visible disaster to farmers within a few months. Further, appointing the former president as prime minister will necessarily displace the sitting prime minister, Dinesh Gunawardena, who is a leader of an influential faction within the government and is also personally close to President Ranil Wickremesinghe in a way that makes a partnership possible. The fact that the prime minister is the person who will succeed the president if anything unexpected should happen to the president is also likely to play a role in the final decision on this matter.
The ruling party’s other request to the president to appoint several stalwarts to ministerial positions will be difficult for the president to accept. Most of them stand accused of corruption and abuse of power on a significant scale and have also been the focus of attention of the protest movement. There is considerable resentment against President Wickremesinghe himself for having stepped forward to accept the prime ministerial position when those who now seek reappointment as ministers had resigned from their positions in the government. It was felt, and continues to be felt, that President Wickremesinghe’s stepping forward at the time he did, has saved those who are corrupt and abusers of powers, and preserved them for future reappearance, which appears to be now in the offing. Those who want their ministerial positions restored appear not realize or not care in the least that they have lost the trust and legitimacy in the eyes of those who once voted them into power. The stark truth is that they are unable to go back to their constituencies and inform them, for instance, on how the IMF conditionalities will affect their lives.
The first five weeks of President Wickremesinghe’s presidency has evoked a mixed response. His unexpected suppression of the protest movement by the use of force have dismayed those who have seen him as a liberal icon in national politics. Those who have backed the protest movement against those who were originally his political foes cannot understand the new president’s lack of empathy with the protest movement that paved the way for his rise to power. Beginning with the midnight storming of the protest site outside of the presidential premises on Galle Face, to the impunity with which unarmed and sleeping protestors were brutalized in the darkness of the night, and to the hounding of anyone who committed the slightest act outside of the law, including taking the president’s beer mug as a souvenir, the governmental repression which has to be with the sanction of the president has come as a shock. Not only have Sri Lankan human rights activists and those citizens who want the best for the country been outraged at this type of pettiness, the international human rights groups have been taken notice.
The past month has also seen a somewhat shaky restoration of normalcy that the general population appear to endorse though it may be more visible than real. The power cuts and queues outside fuel stations which were contained for several weeks now appear to be threatened, suggesting a problem with sustainability. Statistics of the World Health Organisation indicate a severe fall in nutrition that is affecting children, which indicates that the suffering of people is inside their homes where they cannot make ends meet and are unable to provide food at the table, which is not yet manifesting itself outside in renewed public protest. The claim that the protest movement has been hijacked by leftists and extremists has been used to forcefully quell the protest movement. However, this use of force and false narratives are bound to come unstuck in the longer term.
On the other hand, it appears that at the present time the people are by and large willing to give the new president more time before subjecting him to rejection. The presence of the IMF delegation in the country and negotiations have given hope that the anticipated financial inflows will materialize sooner rather than later. There is general acknowledgement that the president is an experienced politician with a cosmopolitan understanding of local and international political affairs and is best suited for negotiations with the international community which holds the key to Sri Lanka’s economic revival. There is also the belief that the president is a liberal at heart whose orientation is not to be discriminative on the basis of race or religion or to hold grudges or prejudices against entire communities of people. During his periods as prime minister under presidents D B Wijetunga, Chandrika Kumaratunga and Maithripala Sirisena, the president was seen as the person more attentive to issues of peace, reconciliation and giving space to civil society in line with international and human rights norms.
There are three urgent actions that the government in general and president in particular need to take. The ongoing crackdown on the protest movement needs to cease. Its excessive nature is discrediting the government, and the president, in the eyes of the international community as well as within the country. The excessive nature of the current spree of arrests can be seen by the tolerance being practiced within the government to those who have even been convicted by the courts for abuse of power relating to corruption but have been brought into the cabinet of ministers. The blame for this asymmetric repression is falling squarely on the president as he is both the commander in chief of the armed forces and minister of defence and all-powerful under the 20th Amendment to the constitution which continues to be operational. It is important that the president should defuse these misapprehensions regarding himself by ensuring that an amnesty is given to all in recognition of the fact that the government goons are unlikely to be ever brought to justice.
Second, the government needs to be more forthcoming about its economic plan. This is the issue that is of most concern to the general population. The recent shortages of petrol and diesel in the Colombo area led to long lines forming which led to panic buying in other parts of the country as well. There are speculations about the lengthening of power cuts. The temporary import ban placed on 300 items is an indication of adjustment measures being taken in order to access IMF funding. The government may not wish to be forthcoming about its plans as it may believe it will have more leverage to steer the economic restructuring process to its advantage, both politically and personally, if there is a lack of transparency. But this will further antagonize those sections of the population who are already feeling that this is an illegitimate government. Lack of transparency will also not serve the government well when it comes to accessing international assistance.
In most democratic countries an economic crisis of the nature currently being experienced by Sri Lanka would have led the incumbent government to both resign and call for fresh elections. However, neither the president nor the present government show a desire to either resign or to dissolve parliament to call for fresh elections. President Wickremesinghe will obtain the legal power to dissolve parliament only in February next year under the 20th Amendment. In the meantime, the government can conduct provincial council elections. Elections in Sri Lanka at this time can serve as a pressure vent as well as provide a barometer of public opinion that will be useful to decision makers all round. A restoration of the provincial councils could also serve to bring back legitimacy to the governmental system, as well as ease the tension in society, by bringing elected persons with a fresh mandate into positions of decision making. This can defuse tensions among the people, while giving the government more time and space to stabilize the economy. The government in general and the president in particular on whom much faith is being placed need to formulate policies that will last the test of time if Sri Lanka is to get on to a sustainable path of national development.