Yesterday, Parliament elected Ranil Wickremesinghe as Sri Lanka’s eighth Executive President. He obtained an overwhelming majority of the votes securing 134 out of 223 cast, against 82 for his main opponent Dullas Alahapperuma.
This becomes the second instance under the 1978 republican Constitution that Parliament was compelled to elect an interim President. The last time it happened was following the assassination of President Ranasinghe Premadasa in 1993 when Prime Minister D.B. Wijetunga was unanimously elected as President to serve the remainder of Premadasa’s term.
Wijetunga was President Premadasa’s handpicked Premier and his natural successor. His party had a majority in Parliament, and the legitimacy and the mandate of the people to serve the remainder of Premadasa’s term.
In 2022, things could not be more different. Wickremesinghe is the leader of the UNP, Sri Lanka’s oldest party that has dominated politics in the island for a good portion of 80 years. In the 2020 Parliamentary Poll, the UNP under Wickremesinghe’s leadership that has spanned quarter of a century, suffered a humiliating defeat winning less than 3% of the countrywide vote. No candidate from the UNP won that election, but by virtue of the proportional representation system, the party received a single national list seat.
In any other democracy, the leader of a party that suffers such a resounding and devastating defeat would be forced to resign. Instead, Ranil Wickremesinghe nominated himself to fill the single seat offered to the UNP.
In May, the UNP Leader did the unthinkable when he agreed to become President Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s Prime Minister, demoralising the countrywide protest movement that was calling for the President’s removal. The association with President Gotabaya Rajapaksa was toxic to the protesting masses, who stepped up calls for Wickremesinghe’s removal in tandem with the GoHomeGota protests. The resignation of President Gotabaya Rajapaksa was unprecedented in Sri Lankan history. Having obtained a colossal mandate in the last Presidential Election held less than three years ago, Rajapaksa was deemed to have lost the legitimacy to govern due to his gross mismanagement of the economy. The overwhelming public anger expressed through massive protests that culminated on 9 July demonstrated that he had completely lost the confidence of the people. There are burning questions now confronting the country. Does the man the deposed President hand-picked to be his Prime Minister have the moral authority to govern in a time of major economic and political strife? By electing Wickremesinghe, has Parliament given expression to the will of the Aragalaya movement? Has Parliament heeded the protestors’ call?
After yesterday’s historic Presidential Election by Parliament, the answer to these questions is a resounding and resolute “no”.
Undoubtedly, President Wickremesinghe was legally elected. The parliamentary process to elect him was free, fair and patently legal. But there is a marked difference between legality and legitimacy, and the election of Wickremesinghe by Parliament yesterday, only exacerbated this divide.
Ranil Wickremesinghe has no popular mandate and he has won the Presidency by proxy. He was elected to power by a bulk of SLPP votes, the party that has been discredited in the public eye, along with the President it brought to power. The Aragalaya has pledged to continue the fight until Wickremesinghe and other proxies for the deposed president are ousted from office. For Sri Lanka, this means that the calm and stability that must follow the election of a custodian to complete the rest of Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s presidential term will elude us. The Aragalaya will oppose Rajapaksa’s chosen successor, and barring a massive crackdown or swift improvement of economic conditions, the protests will escalate until permanent resolution is reached. Ranil Wickremesinghe has a crucial choice to make. The only path to stability now is the quickest possible enactment of the 21st Amendment that would at a minimum restore the structures, checks and balances that were enshrined in the 19th Amendment. The interim President must understand that he holds the Presidency in trust, until the people can choose their leaders in the next election.
In a climate of overwhelming clamour for systemic change and abolition of the Executive Presidency, President Wickremesinghe cannot hope to govern effectively until and unless he gives expression to the demands on the street. Not unless he wants to learn the bitter lessons of his predecessor.