Sri Lankans are more accustomed to writing or saying ‘Prime Minister’ Ranil Wickremesinghe, and now it is ‘President’ Wickremesinghe, and whether he expected it or not, the Sri Lankans never expected it as the political climate back in 2015 when he was deposed as Prime Minister for 51 days, his political image was slowly diminishing. Then again, when his United National Party was fragmented, people thought Wickremesinghe was done and dusted, but all those guesses were proved wrong.

Many believe Wickremesinghe can get ‘craftier’ day by day. He is known to be a ‘cunning fox’ like his uncle, former President J.R. Jayewardene, who ruled the country through two bloody insurgencies in the North and the South, and invited foreign troops to Sri Lanka.The first such belief of Wickremesinghe was confirmed when the military were used in the early hours of Friday to clean up the Galle Face protest site, where many were brutally attacked and arrested. ‘That’s him’, according to a person who has been following Wickremesinghe for a long time. Over Friday’s brutal attacks, politicians took to Twitter to express their disgust. Some of them are from the Wickremesinghe camp.

While the ‘Rise and Fall of Rajapaksas’ is widely spoken about in the current context, Wickremesinghe’s story is about the ‘Fall and Rise’ of a political figure.

Wickremesinghe was the Prime Minister until 13 July, when Gotabaya Rajapaksa fled, unable to face the political and economic collapse during his 31-month presidency.

While Rajapaksa lost his credibility and legitimacy to rule over the people using his powerful executive status, he resigned, appointing Wickremesinghe as the ‘Acting President’ in the backdrop of Wickremesinghe allegedly being Rajapaksas’s favourite for a long time. Both parties scratched each other’s backs, despite fighting tooth and nail in Parliament, showcasing a picture otherwise. 

After being elected as the 8th Executive President of Sri Lanka, Wickremesinghe told Sky News that he was not a friend of the Rajapaksas. Mocking the claims he was an old friend of the Rajapaksas, he said, “I became the President looking at my opportunity to strengthen my Party.” He further said, “How can I be a friend
of the Rajapaksas when I have been opposing them all the time. I am the friend of the people and I will give the change the people want.”

President Wickremesinghe is now more powerful than US President Joe Biden, under the 20A.He is also the Commander-in-Chief of the Tri-Forces and he met war veteran, General Kamal Gunaratne, a favourite of Gotabaya Rajapaksa last week and a few hours later the protesters were attacked and people are still clueless as to why he should strike back because the protesters were to handover the Presidential Secretariat they occupied on Saturday, 9 July.

Politics as a sport

Wickremesinghe in 2014, told an interesting little story about politics as a sport. Also, in 2019 when defeated by the Gotabaya regime, he repeated the same interesting story to the media. He said: “Politics is a hard game and it needs teamwork, while one has to have the stamina to play it. Politics is more than chess. It is teamwork like cricket. You must have the stamina for a marathon. You must remember it is a hard game like rugby and it is a blood sport like boxing.” He held a chess board in front of the camera and explained the same and later on tweeted the same story when he resigned from the Prime Minister’s post and left Temple Trees.

But after becoming the Acting President appointed by Gotabaya, he moved the dice further to knock down the word ‘Acting’ to become the President.

The audience screamed about his legitimacy of becoming the next President, as he is a one-man political party called the UNP and also, he was the MP nominated through the National List. He was not an elected official to represent the people. But the Sri Lankan Constitution is such a complex one, similar to the Constitution of Israel. While the people dismissed Wickremesinghe’s ‘Acting President’ status quo, he wanted to contest for Presidency under unique circumstances, where the election was held in Parliament for the first time, calling for an absolute majority.

The masses and the politicians were also confused on the voting pattern. Many had been bartering to favour the candidates namely, Wickremesinghe, Dullas Alahapperuma, Sajith Premadasa (SP), and Anura Kumara Dissanayake (AKD).

The first two were the favourites of the Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP), although technically Wickremesinghe was not from the SLPP. Then all of a sudden Premadasa quit from the race and said he and his party would support Alahapperuma. Alahapperuma by then assured Premadasa he would appoint Premadasa as the Prime Minister if Alahapperuma is elected President. Almost all the minor political parties over the assurance that Premadasa would be made the Prime Minister openly said they would vote for Alahapperuma. However, Alahapperuma secured only 82 votes and Wickremesinghe bagged 134 votes and crowned himself as the President of Sri Lanka.

AKD and the Tamil National Alliance questioned where were the votes assured by the minority party MPs and it was openly acknowledged they had voted forWickremesinghe. 

It is speculated that the new President has vowed to reinstate the 19th Amendment, as it would limit his power. He has also said he intends to form an All-Party Government for three months.However, the sudden and mighty display of military power over civilians protesting at Galle Face was uncalled for.

In addition, Wickremesinghe has chosen Dinesh Gunawardena as his Prime Minister based on seniority in the House. Gunawardena was among the few politicians who screamed at the top of his lungs, accusing Wickremesinghe of robbing people’s money through the Central Bank Bond Scam. Wickremesinghe also reappointed the same Cabinet of Ministers to lead the country beginning Friday (22).

Wickremesinghe couldn’t think of anyone else because it’s an SLPP regime.His Government is an all-SLPP Government, which means that the Interim Government he declared is not yet in place.

There are rumours that he will appoint a new Cabinet in three months, but Wickremesinghe’s first action as President on the protesters has been widely condemned. Whether it was retaliation for the burning down of his ancestral home or not, the action did not go down well internationally.

“No President before has begun a term of office with revenge as its leitmotif. With all the other unique features of this presidency, for example, the absence of a direct mandate, we’re about to see a new mutation of presidential authoritarianism in Sri Lanka. Don’t say you weren’t warned,” tweeted Asanga Welikala, a constitutional law expert.

Dr. Ajantha Perera, an activist and environmentalist who has been at the protest ground for over 100 days has openly said the Members of Parliament have coiled themselves up not beyond the parliamentary wall. She said they have been thinking of their own royalty in the game of politics and cared not about the public’s demand.

Swiss Ambassador Dominik Furgler tweeted “Follow developments at Galle Face with deep concern. The right to peacefully demonstrate and express opinions remains important. We urge for restraint and full access of medical services. Sri Lanka needs mutual respect and cooperation to get on.” 

Brutal state violence

Andrew Fidel Fernando, author of Upon a Sleepless Isle: Travels in Sri Lanka by Bus, Cycle and Trishaw tweeted that Wickremesinghe has begun his reign with brutal State violence, media repression, and by cracking down on the one political force that helped achieve positive change in the last two years. “You’d normally say you get the leaders to vote for.This time even that’s not true.”

The Bar Association, the Opposition Party, the Sri Lanka Human Rights Commission, diplomats, several media outlets, and NGOs such as CPA and Amnesty International have condemned the brutal attacks on the protesters.

President Wickremesinghe has a reputation for being tolerant of minorities, and the protesters are a small group demanding a system change that has yet to be implemented. Wickremesinghe may have made little progress toward implementing a system change on the day he was appointed President. However, the ‘blood sport of boxing’ has unfortunately taken centre stage to begin with. There were no comments from the Government as to why they had cracked down on the protesters, when this edition went to print.

Wickremesinghe has extensive political experience in addition to knowledge of economics and international affairs.He is a difficult man who, contrary to popular belief, does not seek a win-win situation. He enjoys the win or lose game, and he won.That is the only fact, and the rest is up to the masses to speculate on how he would roll his dice in the coming days.

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By Sulochana Ramiah Mohan