Wednesday, Oct 05, 2022

Sri Lanka: Ranil Elected President, But People Are Unhappy. Will It Lead To Another Round Of Protests?

One thing going for Ranil Wickremesinghe is that people are weary of protests. Now that Gotabaya is out of the country, the majority would rather have the government concentrate on getting the economy on track.

Sri Lanka President Ranil Wickremesinghe.(File photo) AP

Sri Lanka’s lawmakers have voted decidedly for Ranil Wickremesinghe to be president till fresh elections are called. He got as many as 134 votes in the 225 member House. While the breakaway candidate of the Sri Lanka Podujana Perumuna (SLPP, the Rajapaksa family outfit) Dullas Alahapperume obtained 82 votes and the Marxist leader Anura Kumara Dissanayake could manage just three votes.

Ranil Wickremesinghe, a six time prime minister  is certainly the best man for the job at a time when the island nation’s economy has collapsed. But his election could again plunge Sri Lanka into another round of political unrest and instability. Ranil has little credibility with the general public. Protests calling for Ranil Wickremesinghe to quit were witnessed in some  places ahead of today’s elections but these were not mass rallies. Just about 150 people turned up. People are also tired they cannot come out to the streets in droves every day. Now that Gotabaya Rajapaksa is out people now want the economy up and running. They would rather give Ranil a chance to put the nation back on the rails. According to some analysts it may not be as easy to mobilise protests.  

Anticipating possible demonstrations, the Colombo Port Magistrate’s Court issued an order Wednesday preventing anyone from reaching within a 50 meter radius of the S.W.R.D.Bandarnaike statute which is located at the protest site at the Galle face green in the capital.

Ranil Wickremesinghe is seen as Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s choice and his party the United National Party had not been able to win a single seat in the 2020 Parliamentary elections. So people believe he has no right to be President even if he is elected by lawmakers . Neither Ranil nor the members of parliament have credibility with the voters.

The fear is that this may lead to another round of street protests, calling for Ranil to quit. Sri Lanka at the moment can ill afford another political turmoil when the President and the new government he appoints has to  focus on getting the economy back on track. That won’t be an easy job. Much will depend on whether the protesters are back on the street and how the President tackles the fresh volley of unrest. He is a smart politician . The problem is if he comes down hard on the protesters it will result in violence. If he takes the soft approach he will be forced out of office.

The suave Wickremesinghe who comes from a well established political family has never been a people’s man. He is not a great orator who can fire up the grassroot workers like Mahinda Rajapaksa. He is more a backroom boy, used to making deals and has friends across party lines. Many of SLPP  lawmakers also voted for the President, though senior party leaders including the much respected G.L.Peiries  backed Dullas Alahapperume.

Sajith Premadasa’s Samagi Jana Balawegaya (SLB) had cut a deal  with Dullas , promising to withdraw from the presidential race and getting his MPs to support the SLPP. In return Dullas had to nominate Sajith Premadasa as prime minister. This was to ensure that Ranil Wickremesinghe, the man seen to be close to the Rajapaksa does not become President. The plan obviously  misfired.  The SLB has 54 seats in the current House.  

Ranil Wickremesinghe is popular outside the country and regarded as a mature politician who can help stabilise the economy. He has also always been a friend to India. From the beginning of his career as a junior minister in his uncle Jayawardene’s government, when many ministers were against the India-Lanka accord of 1987, Ranil supported the move. In and out of office Wickremesinghe has maintained cordial ties with the Indian political establishment. Foreign minister Jaishankar knows him well having served in Colombo in the early years of his career.

Rumour mills in Sri Lanka are now pointing fingers at New Delhi for ensuring Wickremesinghe’s victory.  Denying these charges, the Indian High Commission in Colombo tweeted : "We have seen baseless and purely speculative media reports about efforts at political level from India to influence political leaders in Sri Lanka regarding elections in the Sri Lankan Parliament to the post of the President of Sri Lanka.’’ And again  "(We) categorically deny these media reports as completely false. They are clearly a figment of someone’s imagination." Another tweet said  that India   " doesn’t interfere in internal affairs and democratic processes of another country".