In recent days we have seen the skipping behavior of many among the 225 jumping aside and rushing to rally behind newly appointed and anointed unelected Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe. (RW), (who was given a new surname, Rajapaksa, for becoming the savior of the disgraced Rajapaksas).
RW and his retinue of supporters had advertised their new role as patriotic and to save the nation from its state-sponsored economic disaster. While outside parliament, Aragalaya is demanding, with national support and at great cost, systemic change in political governance and the economy, inside the legislature these rebels are desperate to protect the status quo, for once the system is allowed to change, there would be no hope for many of them to return to this assembly.
But will this interim government bring political stability? The man who is the root cause of economic ruin and in whom people have lost faith hides behind the Constitution and continues as an autocratic president. Aragalaya asks him to resign. At least two opposition party leaders had said they would not, in principle, join RW’s caretaker government as long as GR remained in that post. Meanwhile, the ousted prime minister, who should have been arrested by now for his role in the recent violence, is under state protection at taxpayer expense.
Aragalaya also demands that the five Rajapaksas, including the president, be brought to justice and held accountable for their collective plunder. According to an anonymous source, the total wealth value of the Rajapaksa clan stands at a staggering Rs. 1,050,000,000,000,000. Even if 10% had to be proven, this amount is colossal. RW, after sanctimoniously declaring his support for Aragalaya, remains silent on these basic demands. Presenting the dire state of the economy in a televised speech, he said, “My goal and my dedication is not to save an individual, a family or a party. My goal is to save everyone in this country and the future of our young generation.
These are laudable sentiments. But the fact is that he was chosen and appointed by an individual, anointed by his clan and supported by his party. Are we to believe that he will not be obliged to show gratitude to his promoters? Already in parliament, TNA MP Sumanthiran exposed RW’s renegade behavior for not backing the no confidence motion against the president that the prime minister pledged his support to when he was in opposition. Thus, the current political stability is artificial and transitory. Moreover, whatever stability there is inside Parliament does not translate into stability outside. As long as there is a “disconnect between Ranil’s premiership and the sovereign people”, political stability is not guaranteed. What about the economy? RW is a prime minister appointed without a mandate even from a constituency. Of course, he has experience in the art of political craftsmanship and, to his credit, he has gained some international recognition. With these assets and in the immediate term, the RW government may be able to raise short-term economic and financial aid from friendly countries, mainly on a credit basis, and from international donor institutions, to overcome some of the immediate difficulties facing the nation.
Negotiations with the IMF could resume as soon as a finance minister is appointed, and the IMF could grant cheaper and longer-term credits than others, and successfully restructure the country’s external debt as well. But these alone are insufficient. The economy needs structural changes and the Prime Minister’s speech did not touch on this important area at all. He is now launching the idea of privatizing the loss-making company SriLankan Airlines, which has been tried unsuccessfully before. In fact, all state enterprises need radical reforms to increase their efficiency. There is also the problem of corruption and mafia power to be eradicated.
Restructuring the economy and putting it on a growth path requires a serious rethink and reformulation of the post-1977 open economy model and a U-turn from the disastrous “alternative path” of GR. This does not mean a total rejection of the open economy but a redesign of it to give it a Sri Lankan face, like the way China has embraced capitalism. Such restructuring is intended to disrupt existing power relations in society and powerful vested interests would rise up against any fundamental change in the prevailing system. This is why restructuring requires a clear mandate from the people. It is highly unlikely that the caretaker government, with the kind of people who support it and a prime minister whose training, political thinking and experience belong to the centre-right, would embark on such an adventure.
At least JVP and FSP seem to understand this need and they seem to be building an understanding with the new awakened generation that is spearheading the Aragalaya. This generation which represents almost 60% of voters is educated, gender balanced, hetero-ethnic and ready to make the sacrifices necessary to build a new Sri Lanka. It is the local expression of a global phenomenon. Without their mandate, no party or government could dream of succeeding and even less of surviving. The best the RW government can do is accelerate the opportunity for this to happen. Let the monkeys return to their places.
(The author is affiliated with the Murdoch Business School, Murdoch University, Western Australia.)