Last week, July 9, 2022, was a momentous day in the annals of recent Sri Lankan history when the protests that had been going on for months against the government of President Gotabaya Rajapaksa gathered momentum. The protesters, swelling to their hundreds of thousands, filled the streets of Colombo and overran the heart of Sri Lanka’s executive arm of the government, the President’s House, the president’s office and earlier the prime minister’s official residence.
On July 13, they overran the prime minister’s office, taking control of the key government institutions and offices.
President Rajapaksa and his family had to be evacuated to safety by the Sri Lankan state security forces, reportedly aboard a naval vessel that then went out to sea but not outside Sri Lankan territorial waters. Three cabinet ministers also resigned, most notably the recently appointed investment promotion minister, business magnate Dhammika Perera, one the richest men in the country.
A meeting of the party leaders was chaired by the speaker of Parliament and they called for the resignation of the president and the prime minister. President Gotabaya Rajapaksa agreed to resign on July 13, while Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe agreed to resign in the event a divided Parliament could agree first on his successor.
On July 13, the self-imposed deadline for his resignation came and gone, and it is clear that President Rajapaksa has little or no intention of resigning. Instead, he fled the country, aboard a Sri Lankan Air Force aircraft for the Maldives, from where he appointed Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe as acting president. The leaders of parties represented in Parliament again demanded that Wickremesinghe also resigns while the speaker’s office has confirmed that it is examining if the president’s actions of fleeing the country constitutes a vacation of post situation.
Meanwhile, there are new concerns being expressed in Colombo, by both political elements and the security establishment, that the protests or ‘Aragalaya’, meaning struggle in the Sinhala language, is being hijacked and taken over by Left-wing extremists and neo-fascist forces to capture state power through the protest movement.
Trigger for the deadlock
The deadlock in the democratic political structure is very apparent because the Rajapaksa’s or their governing party, the Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP), controls a near majority in Parliament, even after breakaways and defections. Short of a genuine resignation, or at least a retirement to the Opposition benches by the Rajapaksas, it creates a complete deadlock in the democratic process.
The relatively young, 50 something leader of the Opposition, Sajith Premadasa, himself the son of former president Ranasinghe Premadasa, has consistently called for a parliamentary election for the multiple purposes of taking the heat from the street protests to an election campaign, getting a genuine people’s mandate and reestablishing the legitimacy of the government and securing public support for the painful fiscal and state reforms which are required for the Sri Lankan economy to become a viable, functional and sustainably growing entity again. It probably helps that he and his party, the Samagi Jana Balawegaya (SJB), are confident of winning an election, not least because the government has crashed along with the economy.
The likely scenarios for Colombo
So, what are the likely options and scenarios for Sri Lanka? The most likely one in the short term would be that Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe will continue to play his preferred role as “acting president”, with the consequence that the country at best would be unable to make the reforms so essential for an economic turnaround, and at worst will lead to anarchy as a government seen entirely as illegitimate seeks to keep people in misery through an iron fist.
The alternative is for the fractious and divided Opposition to start coalescing together at least for the limited purpose of ousting the Rajapaksa regime, but the obstacle to the same is that the parties stronger in Parliament are less prevalent on the streets and those on the streets are not really present or significant in Parliament. Hence, the street protesters stated preference for extra-constitutional regime change and becoming more attractive as constitutional regime change is made impossible by Rajapaksa and Wickremesinghe’s intransigence.
The third option which cannot be off the table is a military-backed regime, a kind of hybrid government where a civilian façade of political personalities constitutes a government that is largely seen as illegitimate, and where military might and muscle is needed for barebones governance.
Of the above three scenarios, the only appealing one is for the Opposition to coalesce sufficiently for an interim or transitionary governing arrangement followed by elections in a clearly defined short-time span of perhaps three to six months. Even the Rajapaksas, one hopes that it is in their best interest to step aside and out of the quagmire that they have sunk Sri Lanka into and should they favour their own chances of a quick return, join the fray at an ensuing election. This would be in the best interest of Sri Lanka.
Economic challenges & India’s role
Sri Lanka’s core challenges are economic. The political instability arises from an economic collapse brought about by poor governance and bad policies. Accordingly getting Sri Lanka’s economy back on track, of crucially making her national and especially foreign debt sustainable, all require fiscal and economic policy reforms, which only a stable government can implement. India has pretty much done the most she can, and more than Sri Lanka expected.
Lending Sri Lanka over two billion dollars in currency swaps and credit lines, India stepped into the gap created by other lenders, bilateral and multi-lateral who all stopped, when repayment became suspect. But India too has to ensure that economic reforms take place, not least so that the loans she has extended to Sri Lanka are repaid over the long term and on the concessionary term that have been provided.
(The writer is former adviser to the minister of foreign affairs, Sri Lanka)
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