In the last two weeks or so there have been some critical political developments in Sri Lanka, the battered South Asian nation once regarded as the pearl of the Indian Ocean.
Whether these changes will see some light at the end of the dark tunnel of the economic crisis which has spiraled into a energy and food abyss remains to be seen?
For the political changes that have been introduced may not be enough to relieve the pressure of the public from the government led by President Gotabaya Rajapaksa simply because the resignation of long time stalwart Mr Mahinda Rajapaksa and induction of Mr Ranil Wickremesinghe as the prime minister would be seen as reaffirmation of the old order.
An unless the public signified by the, “Gota Go Gama,” protests at the Galle Face are willing to let the heat off the government it cannot undertake immediate relief measures which may be painful to some extent as a part of the process of structural adjustment of the economy in the medium to long term.
Will Gota Go Gama protestors be pacified by the induction of Mr. Ranil Wickremesinghe and without resignation of President Gotabaya Rajapaksa remains to be seen?
Ranil - The Hobson’s Choice
With ruling Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP) discredited and unacceptable to the people at large and the main Opposition Samagi Jana Balawegaya (SJB) unwilling to take charge of the government unless President Gotabaya Rajapaksa resigned, Mr Ranil Wickremesinghe almost proposed himself as the candidate for the crown of thorns.
He was sworn in on May 12, three days after country wide clashes.
While he has the experience but he was also a part of several governments as well as a leader in the opposition which has seen the current economic plight in the country.
More over, his support base the United National Party (UNP) of which he is the head has been discredited in the last parliamentary elections and even Mr. Ranil could not retain his seat.
Lack of political base is obvious as he is appealing to he former UNP members now in the opposition Samagi Jana Balawegaya (SJB) such as Manusha Nanayakkara and Harin Fernando for support.
PM’s Opening Moves
The opening moves of Mr Wickremesinghe have been positive. He has taken the people into confidence and has done some plain speaking indicating to them that there are not easy solutions and they must prepare for a rough economic ride ahead.
On the political front he is hoping to get the 21st Amendment to the Constitution passed by the parliament with a special committee heading by Member of Parliament Wijayadasa Rajapaksha instructed to work in double time. Nevertheless, this is unlikely to be smooth sailing.
While Chief Prelates of Malwatta and Asgiriya Chapters have telephoned and blessed the new Prime Minister, Bishop Valence Mendis of Kandy Diocese has also blessed him but there are others such as Cardinal Malcolm Ranjith and Omalpe Sobitha Thero who have opposed his holding the chair being the only MP representing his party.
Members of the ruling SLPP and a section of the main Opposition Samagi Jana Balawegaya (SJB) and several other parties have expressed their support for Wickremesinghe in Parliament.
If the new prime minister is able to move the 21st Amendment, have President Gotabaya Rajapaksa give up office and do some quick rejigging of the economy he may win over the public and protests may subside.
That the SLPP continues to hold sway in the parliament and thus the possibility of impeachment of the President as proposed by the opposition SJB amongst other parties appears to be a non starter for now.
This was evident in the way the vote for the deputy speaker were cast. 109 votes were cast in favor of Ajith Rajapakse and 78 votes were cast in favor of Rohini Kumari Wijerathna.
There were 23 invalid votes and 13 Members of Parliament were recorded absent as per the Colombo Page. This was even as the Prime Minister Ranil indicated that he would prefer Rohini Kumari. The SLPP did not accept his proposal. Ajith is the MP from Hambantota district the home base of Rajapaksa.
Similarly an opposition motion moved by Member of Parliament M.A Sumanthiran to suspend the Standing Orders expressing displeasure of Parliament for not having properly exercised, performed and discharged the powers of president under the Constitution was rejected by a majority of 51 votes as per the Colombo Page. 68 votes were cast in favor of the motion while 119 votes were cast against it.
Clearly the SLPP and the Rajapaksas are not likely to relent on giving up power and will fight on. Under the circumstances how Mr Ranil shapes the economy remains to be seen? If the people at large feel some relief the heat may be off the backs of the President.
Investigating Attack on protesters
Getting to the bottom of the clashes on May 09 is important as the victims must be given justice which will also pacify the public to some extent. This may be difficult given the circumstsances under which these are reported to have been conducted.
The May 9 clashes in Galle Face and the fall out is being blamed on supporters of Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa who resigned immediately after. Thugs owing allegiance to former PM Mahinda and the ruling SLPP attacked protesters in front of the Prime Minister’s residence and at Galle Face, opposite the Presidential Secretariat, leading to pitched battles and the destruction of protest sites in Colombo.
The Rajapaksa family and SLPP members assets were also targeted across the country in a systematic campaign of arson.
Investigations are ongoing on the attack on the protestors. A team of Criminal Investigations Department (CID) officers have questioned four MPs, including former Ministers Rohitha Abeygunawardena and CB Ratnayake, regarding the violence near Temple Trees and Galle Face Green in Colombo on May 9. Colombo Fort Magistrate Thilina Gamage has remanded four suspects, including Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP) parliamentarians Sanath Nishantha and Milan Jayatilake.
Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe in a speech to the nation has very effectively outlined the economic crisis facing the nation and measures being taken including printing of more money and mobilizing foreign resources to shore up the collapsing economy and the Sri Lankan Rupee.
He stated that the revenue planned was 2.3 trillion rupees, but the real revenue forecast for this year is 1.6 trillion rupees. The budget deficit for the year is 2.4 trillion rupees, or 13 percent of GDP. He said although approved credit limit is 3.2 trillion rupees, the government has spent 1.95 trillion rupees by the second week of May and the gross balance for the rest of the year is 1.25 trillion rupees.
How these measures play out remain to be seen?
India has undertaken multiple relief measures which are expected to provide relief to the public by pumping in ships carrying 40,000 MT of diesel under the Indian credit line. This and the larger assistance to the Sri Lankan government in the past one year is expected to assist the government to tide over the crisis and bring relief to the people.
JP Morgan, the leading investment bank in the United States has expressed optimism over the recent political changes to overcome the current political crisis in Sri Lanka.
Yet there are many imponderables including mood of the public, support to the Prime Minister Ranil from the political parties and the willingness of the Rajapaksa’s to let go which will determine whether there will be light at the end of the tunnel.