Is he the worst leader, or has the nastiness of the attacks on him gone beyond the political pale?

How do you solve a problem like Ranil Wickremesinghe?


Prime Minister Ranil

Rajan Philips

Is Prime Minister Wickremesinghe the worst leader available for Sri Lanka? The PM is witty enough to respond: "except for everyone else around". He should know the trite Churchillian quote about democracy being the worst form of government except for every other form of government that has been tried. He would also contend that for all its disappointments, the yahapalanaya government during the last two years has been much better than the predecessor Rajapaksa government – by virtue of the freedom to criticize the government and protest against it, the freedom from the fear of arbitrary arrest, disappearance and being killed, and the absence of political families wielding the levers of state power. In these respects and more, the present government would still be better than a Rajapaksa government that may replace it.

Neither political formation is unblemished, but who is worse in what respect is the current question, and the crux of our current predicament. And given all the alternative leaders we now have, Ranil Wickremesinghe, ineffectual and disappointing as he has been, is not the worst among them. For the next two years or less, it is also reasonably certain that Mr. Wickremesinghe will be Sri Lanka’s Prime Minister. He will remain as PM until the next parliamentary election, or unless he decides to become a candidate at the presidential election that will come sooner. Given the current political stakes, the next two years are critically important and the role of Ranil Wickremesinghe is critical as well.

Yet, Mr. Wickremesinghe presents a problem to himself and the country. From his standpoint, he has to figure out a public way of responding to the barrage of disparaging barbs, criticisms and innuendos that are constantly flung at him by his detractors. Even sections of the ‘free media’ have been running wild like hyenas on drugs to bring down the man in the run up to the no-confidence vote in parliament. When the vote was badly defeated, other hyenas took to the road howling for revenge for their side. The question for the country is whether politics over the next two years is going to be dominated by rival packs of hyenas, attacking and defending Ranil Wickremesinghe.

As the gossip in Colombo goes, the PM’s friends have been asking their man why he is not taking on a particular TV network that has been framing him constantly with wild commentaries. His reply apparently is that he doesn’t want to dignify baseless slanders by responding to them. It might have been a different story if he is not carrying the bond monkey on his back, and the monkey might be a huge restraint on him going on the attack against his detractors. At the same time, what seems to be baffling even Mr. Wickremesinghe’s highly critical supporters is the scurrilous, relentless and exclusively targeted attacks on Ranil Wickremesinghe in the commercial media. Everyone else is handsomely spared even though all the others have bigger skeletons in multiple cupboards and even graveyards.

The criticisms of Ranil Wickremesinghe by Sinhala civilizational nationalists are perfectly understandable. Even if one may not agree with the premises of their criticisms or their assumed monopoly over patriotism, no one will disagree that their criticisms are honest and that the nationalists who articulate them are honourable men and women who have no ulterior motives of personal gain or business prospects. There is also much generational gripe against the Prime Minister by those who are of the same age cohort and from the same elite political circles, and who think they are better than him academically and intellectually but cannot be where Ranil Wickremesinghe is politically. Disgruntlement is part of human nature but can be a public pain in politics. Commercial media organizations which single out an individual political leader for personal and political savagery are a different species. There is no point is challenging the viewers – "we report, you decide", when the reporting is one sided and the interpretations are not merely ‘leading’ but misleading. This is like having a court system with only the prosecution and the judge charging the jury to decide based on what the prosecution has reported. In a kangaroo court, there is no place for defence. What drives media organizations to broadcast this mockery of free speech is best left unsaid in writing than speculated upon; more so when there is enough speculation doing the rounds in Colombo.

The Wickremesinghe problem

Apart from his critics and detractors, the Wickremesinghe problem is what is he going to do as PM over the next two years or less? Rather, what can he do? To modify what has been aptly said of the present government being in office but not in power, Ranil Wickremesinghe is secure in office as PM but can he exercise any power? These questions are academic, as well as practical and political. Academic insofar as Sri Lanka’s current constitutional stalemate is quite unprecedented and unanticipated. Both NM Perera and AJ Wilson called the (1978) constitutional provisions on the role of the PM and the dissolution of parliament as unique and without parallel anywhere else. The architect of the constitution, JR Jayewardene, did not care so long as he was in power and could keep amending his way through.

The 19th Amendment somewhat stemmed the constitutional decline towards personalized presidential power but has created new unanticipated questions that we are being asked now. The questions show the extent of constitutional business that is still unfinished. Nothing matters to the current defenders of the 1978 constitution, especially the executive presidency, so long as they could have Gotabhaya Rajapaksa as president in 2019/20, to permanently defend the state and civilization of Sri Lanka against false, fake and non-existent enemies. In temporal terms, it will be paradise regained to most of the old Rajapaksa entourage who did more than well for a whole decade, prospering seamlessly in state and private businesses.

The practical way out of the current impasse is for the President and the Prime Minister to work together. That’s what they were elected to do and that’s what they gave all the appearances of doing for over two years until the President started blowing his top off. After the local government elections in early February, the President went all out to get rid of the Prime Minister, even though without the latter Maithripala Sirisena could not have become even a presidential candidate, common or uncommon. With the no confidence motion having come and gone, what are the chances that the two horns of our current ‘constitutional diarchy’ will start working in some harmony? No one knows for sure what came between the two power-mates that turned Maithripala Sirisena so viciously against his principal political benefactor. At least the two leaders must find out what came between them so that they put it behind them and start a new working relationship.

I will wager that it was something more personal than politics. Going by what is generally said about the Prime Minister – it could be the PM’s superciliousness that may have driven the President to go nuts. After sulking for months about the ignominy of decisions being made without any referral to him, about cabinets within cabinets, and committees of outside advisers overseeing cabinet ministers, the President may not have been to handle it any more – so he flew off the handle knocking down everything on his flight path. So at a personal, or practical level, can the PM become more collegial than supercilious, and the President more frank and forthright than sulk and blow? This is baby-sitting at the highest level, but it seems to be quite common among contemporary political leaders. Look at the United States. Every day, every political adult in the US has to anticipate, interpret, explain and prepare the country, often other countries as well, to the temperamental tweets of their infantile President. Sri Lanka is not that bad.

Politically, the No Confidence Motion (NCM) has caused a realignment of affiliations inside parliament. The President has, after some resistance, come around to accept that the six SLFP Ministers who voted for the NCM can no longer be in cabinet. So the sixteen SLFPers who voted for the motion have been allowed by the President to leave the government. They will sit in opposition but support the President! According to the former President Mahinda Rajapaksa, after the New Year they will all be subsumed in the SLPP. The cabinet size will not be reduced, but new ministers will be added to replace the departing ones. And the assignment of ministerial responsibilities will continue to be on a ‘scientific basis’ (whatever that means) as they are now, according to the cabinet spokesman Rajitha Senaratne. The resignation or the expulsion of the six SLFP Ministers from cabinet is a rare instance when the UNP has pushed back on the President. Usually, it has been the other way around. There will be more push and pull in the cabinet than before, but what will matter ultimately is what difference the post-NCM cabinet and government is going to make to the lives of the people.

Soon after the elections in 2015, there were high expectations and broad support for action against general corruption and conclusive investigation of specific crimes including murders. Focusing on them exclusively now will only invite public cynicism. The old slogan, "it’s the economy, stupid" has come alive again in Sri Lanka. The government can ignore this only at its peril. A lot will depend on the priorities that the government will identify and focus on for the next two years. The role of the Prime Minister is going to be crucial again because he is the one who has been singlehandedly pushing the economic agenda. The results have been mostly unimpressive, and the people voted their anger and frustration in the local elections. The Prime Minister and the government will have to shift focus away from chasing free trade mirages and megapolis grandeurs, to the countryside that makes up most of Sri Lanka and attend to the farmers and their needs in terms of water, fertilizer, and timely effective. Apart from this being the economically sensible thing to do, it is also the politically correct and electorally smart thing to do.

The Prime Minister’s parliamentary victory against the no confidence motion has not expanded his powers, but has enlarged the onus on him to show more and better results than before. If he does not show results, he will lose his status in the party even before he gets to face the judgement of the people. And he cannot show results by working in isolation from the President, but only by working collegially and consultatively with the President. On the other hand, President Sirisena has no responsibility to show anything to anybody. To put it rather uncharitably, no one is expecting anything much from President Sirisena anymore. The President can chose to being a ‘spoiler’ to whatever the Prime Minister and the UNP want to do, or to work with them co-operatively and somewhat restore his much damaged credibility. The President can also play the role of being only the Head of State and leave the government to the Prime Minister. In which case, as Sir Ivor Jennings said of the Monarch in England, Sri Lankans can cheer the President and damn the Prime Minister.




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