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Sri Lanka: Rajapaksa’s Continue to Hold Strings in Colombo


For stability Sri Lanka must look beyond the Rajapaksa clique – the family and its retainers who have enjoyed fruits of power for too long. Is this practicable now or will the Rajapaksa’s continue to hold the strings of power in the country, the answer to this question will spell stability in the island nation in the short term.


First, violence by the mob is condemnable there is no place for mobs in a civilized society. Yet at the same time there is reason to introspect as to what led to situation coming to such a passe that the people began to hate leaders who had years back in 2009 routed the Tamil Tigers a full-blown insurgency that had captured power in the South and East of the country through force of arms. That is another story.


However, despite huge unpopularity and public resentment evident in mass protests that have led to announcement of possible resignation of President Gotabaya Rajapaksa though not officially confirmed and Prime Minister and elder brother Mahinda two months apart, the Rajapaksa family continue to hold many cards for survival of their clique. Here is how -


Speaker of the parliament


Constitutionally now Speaker of the parliament Mahinda Yapa Abeywardena should be the President. He is an out and out Rajapaksa loyalist. The Speaker has called for a special meeting of the Committee on Parliamentary Affairs today (11 July) at 2.00 pm to discuss the road map ahead including appointment of a new president after Mr. Gotabaya Rajapaksa leaves the presidency and the formation of a new government. What emerges from this meeting remains to be seen?


The speaker of the parliament needs to take over as the President and the Prime Minister have both resigned and thus the option of the PM taking over Presidency is ruled out.


In such a scenario, parliament speaker, Mahinda Yapa Abeywardena will have to take over as the President and elect a new incumbent until fresh elections can be held which are due in end 2024.


With the Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP) the largest party in the parliament, the President so elected is likely to be another crony of the Rajapaksa’s.


A decision on who will lead the government is unlikely on July 11, thus much jostling is expected to continue in which the Rajapaksa’s through the Speaker may be able to shape the debate. But they have other cards as well.


Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP)


The SLPP block led by the Rajapaksa’s has 100 seats in the 255-seat parliament and thus is the largest party. SLPP has been holding a majority in tandem with several members who are technically in the opposition but support the government from time to time.


The SLPP is expected to continue to attempt to take advantage of being the largest party and stick to reins of power with a nominee who is acceptable to the parliamentarians as well as the masses – a difficult proposition thus who that is remains to be seen?


Weak and Divided Opposition


The opposition holds a majority in the Sri Lanka parliament in terms of number of seats with 122 seats which includes three blocks two major political parties - the Samagi Jana Balawegaya, [SJB] and the Tamil National Alliance (TNA) and 45 Independents. Mustering a majority is not impossible but difficult due to conflicting interests of the diverse partners. Moreover SJB Leader


Sajith Premadasa has not participated in the partly leaders’ meeting so far and is said to be currently in a private hospital in Colombo due to a sudden illness. Is this a fait accomplii? Nevertheless, Sajith is a reluctant leader but has a popular mandate far greater than Ranil Wickremesinghe and may be one who is acceptable to the masses. Does he have the capability to steer the country out of the current morass is not clear. The Rajapaksa’s will continue to take advantage of this factor in the days ahead.


Reluctance for Entering the Crisis Trap


Political leaders in Sri Lanka are reluctant to enter what can be called as the “Crisis Trap,” which is expected to last from the short to medium term. On the other hand, people want immediate relief which is not possible. A leader who can rally the people for greater sacrifices while at the same time he is willing to suffer privations himself alone can move the masses. Symbolism of sacrifice from the top is essential. Alternately a technocrat government which does not have to worry about the political consequences may be the answer but economist who are most suitable to manage the crisis are unwilling to take on this onerous mantle. Thus, there are no easy solutions.


What will Rajapaksa’s do now?


Attempts to place a leader favourable to the family on the lines of Ranil Wickremesinghe will be the preferred option. All attempts to achieve the same will be made which may result in a delay in all party consensus on formation of the government and the leadership. Keeping out the SJB leader will also be one of the main stratagems.


What should India and others do?


A firm signal is required to the political class in Sri Lanka to stand up and be counted towards the welfare of the people and not just the families that have been dominant in politics for too long. The statement by the Indian Ministry of External Affairs Spokesperson Shri Arindam Bagchi that, "India is Sri Lanka’s closest neighbour and our two countries share deep civilizational bonds. We are aware of the many challenges that Sri Lanka and its people have been facing, and we have stood with the Sri Lankan people as they have tried to overcome this difficult period. In pursuance of the central place that Sri Lanka occupies in our Neighbourhood First policy, India has extended this year itself an unprecedented support of over US$ 3.8 billion for ameliorating the serious economic situation in Sri Lanka. We continue to follow closely the recent developments in Sri Lanka. India stands with the people of Sri Lanka as they seek to realize their aspirations for prosperity and progress through democratic means and values, established institutions and constitutional framework,” is good for public consumption.


India must work behind the scenes in tandem with other international and regional stakeholders such as the United States and European Union as well as Australia to nudge the political class towards abdicating power and pelf and working in the interests of the people.

At no time external players can be seen as controlling the political discourse in the country.


Moreover, the reluctance of the present leadership the President and the Prime Minister to leave power must be negated. Despite having stated the intention to resign the Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe is seeking more time on the plea that, “island-wide fuel distribution is due to recommence this week, the World Food Program Director is due to visit the country this week and the Debt Sustainability report for the IMF is due to be finalized shortly”.


Clearly these leaders are out of sync with the mood of the people on the streets. While mobocracy cannot be encouraged and mass protests cannot replace the ballot as the mandate for selecting or rejecting leaders, the nature of resentment against the Rajapaksa’s and in turn Ranil Wickremesinghe seen as their crony is so widespread and deep that an immediate resignation from office is the best option to soothe public sentiment and allow a new all party government with a popularly elected prime minister to take over rather than sticking to the tails of power.


Conclusion


While several measures for India and others have been suggested, there are limitations to the extent outside intervention can help, in fact it can be counterproductive. A solution lies in a technocrat government headed by a leader acceptable to the masses due to his cleaner image and willingness to manage the crisis, such a messiah does not seem to appear on the Sri Lankan horizon for now.

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