Sri Lanka is transitioning from chaos to hopeful uncertainty, as the island’s parliament yesterday elected a new President who’s called for national unity and promises to lead the nation out of crisis and in to a new start, with new plans for changed times.
Ranil Wickremesinghe, who’s been Prime Minister for a world-record six times, was elected with 134 votes to 82 after elected MPs agreed he was the best candidate, an economist with the most experience and administrative-technical know-how, to lead the island of 22 million out of the end effects of months of political, economic and social crises generated before and after the COVID-19 pandemic and aggravated by the Ukraine war.
Nicknamed ‘The Fox’, Wickremesinghe was nominated by his ousted predecessor Gotabaya Rajapaksa and confirmed by MPs, much to the annoyance of some protests but largely because he was also already at the helm, deeply-involved in negotiating a complicated deal with the International Monetary Fund (IMF), while negotiating fuel and food supplies with nations he’s had longstanding ties with during his six prime ministerial tenures.
Interestingly, the Sri Lanka power-play has played out in a manner seen by many as having been won by the all-powerful Rajapaksa family and by others as a transitional phase that will test all traditional notions of what democracy is or shouldn’t be.
On the one hand, the People’s Power revolt that led Rajapaksa to flee and resign is seen by many as a legitimate expression of popular will, but those supporting the protesters do not accept the decision by the democratically-elected majority, in the national interest.
President Wickremesinghe new government has an unenviable task ahead: to face and overcome the same insurmountable tasks that led to the stormy protests, from the unavailability of fuel to accumulating food price rises accelerated by supply chain problems.
But most of all, the new president will have to manage public disaffection at home and restore Sri Lanka’s faith with the old and new partners on the world stage as the island remains battered and bruised by the protests with no healthy economic improvements in near sight.
The political elite has triumphed over the opposition politicians who sought to take advantage of the crisis to gain power, but without any plan to bale the country out of the continuing and worsening crises.
Ex-president Rajapaksa (also nicknamed ‘The Terminator’ for his role in leading the Sri Lanka army’s tough responses to the challenges by Tamil insurgents) isn’t expected to remain outside Sri Lanka — or the island’s politics, for that matter – for too long; and ditto his family, which is ever-present in Sri Lanka’s politics.
President Wickremesinghe was part of the administrations that built close and strong economic ties with China and has always strongly rejected the claim that successive administrations had locked Sri Lanka into a ‘Chinese debt trap’, pointing out that all of Sri Lanka’s Chinese debt added up to only 8% of GDP.
During the crisis, as Prime Minister, Wickremesinghe was also negotiating emergency assistance with China and Russia, while engaging with the World Bank and IMF and reaching-out to US, UK, European Union (EU), G-7 and G-20 nations and Asian partners for help in times of need.
Europe and the US are tied deep-down in Ukraine while Europe is also facing a deadly-cold winter, with Russia warning of reduced gas supplies at a time when it’s most needed; and the global war chest for supplying more arms to Ukraine is sucking much-needed money from treasuries in the UK and USA, each facing 40-year record inflation highs.
Besides, the international financial analysts are warning that at least 17 nations, five already facing default, will most likely sooner than later slip into Sri Lanka’s shoes.
COVID-19 and Climate Change experiences have taught developing countries that the world’s richest nations are looking increasingly inward and not delivering on even their biggest and loudest promises, while traditional donors are reducing aid and assistance.
Tourism is rebounding, so Sri Lanka can benefit from the global travel revival, but food production will be a greater challenge in the months ahead, as the previous administration had banned fertilizer imports to encourage organic farming, which hasn’t helped increase food production when most needed.
The Bretton Woods organizations (IMF and World Bank) and the EU and US will most likely tighten the screws on Colombo under Wickremesinghe, but the shrewd operator in ‘The Fox’ has also shown he’s not afraid of asking for and accepting assistance from China, Russia and India, which would be only-too-willing help in the current circumstances.
Wickremesinghe has demonstrated his will and determination to stand his ground, remaining as Prime Minister even after protesters burned his private residence and accepting Rajapaksa’s nomination despite the ex-president’s unpopularity.
Wickremesinghe will be President until November 2024 and while some protesters may want to return to the streets, the army has been given full power to maintain peace and the national State of Emergency has been extended.
At the end of the cycle of protests and occupations involving arson and other grave manifestations of venting popular feelings, the revolving-door effect has resulted in a thus-far commendably-peaceful resolution of the political crisis insofar as governance is concerned.
It’s now left to those who failed to reap hopeful political benefits from the chaos to accept their losses and allow the nation to move on, to face the challenges and make use of the opportunities that will come, as the new era unfolds in a world beset by uncertainty and unpredictability in everything from politics to weather.
Nations looking-on will have learned that as with Climate Change, none can escape the snowballing effects of the accumulated crises that preceded Ukraine and have multiplied since, but it’s incumbent on all, the Caribbean Community (CARICOM) included, to ensure they’re not caught off-guard where Sri Lanka has erected red-light signals and no-go traffic signs.