The embattled President Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s search for a Prime Minister ended on Thursday with the swearing-in of Ranil Wickremesinghe.
Reactions thus far to the President›s decision have been mixed. The appointment is temporary or interim. Nevertheless, those against are more vocal than those who are happy. In the next few days and weeks, the chorus of both sides will grow, in keeping to the character of polarised Sri Lanka. Perhaps never in recent history was there such an instant and expansive debate on the choice of the Premier. Social media is full of it.
As admitted by none other than the appointer President Rajapaksa himself, Ranil was the second-best choice. He said so in writing in his letter to the Opposition and Samagi Jana Balawegaya (SJB) Leader Sajith Premadasa. Those who are supportive of Ranil say the tag “second best” should remain a signboard for Ranil as he embarks on the challenge of reviving the economy in “turbulent times”, as the President described.
The country at large, the civil society and the political parties and majority of the clergy did campaign for an end to Rajapaksa rule. Despite months of apprehension in silence and protests in public thereafter, Gotabaya has remained resolute in his office, insisting that he got the mandate from 6.9 million people.
Yes, this was true two-and-a-half years ago but since then public sentiment has certainly changed for the contrary. Sections of the clergy and the SJB and Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) did stress on Thursday that Gotabaya by appointing Ranil has only confirmed that the duo are ignorant and disrespectful or appear to be so of ongoing public agitation.
The nation’s cry was for an all-party interim Government sans Rajapaksas and prior to next elections key constitutional reforms will be done including abolishment of executive presidency and strengthening of independent institutions ensuring true good governance going forward. Ranil on his part countered the immediate argument saying not forming a Government on the invitation of the President is cheap petty politics at the cost of prolonging the sufferings of the masses.
Gotabaya unfortunately has had a terrible first two-and-a-half years as President. Apart from having to steer the country amidst the worst pandemic by way of COVID, notable missteps were deep tax cuts soon after being elected which caused a domino effect in terms of loss of Government revenue, downgrade of rating and resultantly not being able to borrow from international markets irrespective of the nationalistic decision of not seeking foreign funding.
Haphazard import substitution policy and banning imports was another. Then there was the choice of officials and policy advisors ranging from his own Secretary, the Central Bank governors etc. Excessive money printing and artificial defence of the exchange rate worsened his list of mistakes. Though Gotabaya could excuse himself of being uncorrupted, he turned a blind eye to the excess by the rest of his family, other ruling party politicians and officials. The end result was being crucified for the worst economic and social crises that paved the way to debilitating political instability.
Be that as it may, if Gotabaya is a quick learner then he can correct himself irrespective of the masses questioning him for his choice of premiership and predicting yet another failure. With nothing to lose except his ego and his past, the old soldier Gotabaya needs to marshal the remaining political support and his new-found Prime Minister to chart the country’s 6 to 9 months future without more skirmishes.
Ranil who is on his record breaking sixth term as the Prime Minister needs to wake up to the reality that old thinking, traditional methods and textbook theories will not solve current dynamic and toxic issues and challenges. He knew his failures during the previous five terms and the country hopes he too has learnt in quick time or finally. Out there is an impatient nation which in turn is rebellious though peaceful. We have seen some offshoots of it this week. Going forward excuses will not suffice but mere delivery of solutions to the pangs of the people. In a politically unsupportive setting the challenge before Gotabaya and Ranil is far greater if not the masses will no longer be merciful or forgiving.