By Ranga Jayasuriya
Sri Lankan politics is cheap. The depth of that cheapness is proof in the two stark choices that the people have now been given. One is the return of the old regime with all its nastiness. Forty four per cent of the voters had chosen that. And the other is to continue with the UNP under the leadership of Ranil Wickremesinghe, whose incompetence, should, more than anything else, be blamed for the resurgence of the Rajapaksas. Through his indecisiveness in governance, Mr. Wickremesinghe de-legitimized the whole spectrum of yahapalanaya.
Yet, even with his worst mistakes, the other alternative is cringingly terrifying. Mr Rajapaksa if given a chance will destroy even the modest achievements that this administration has so far achieved, and set communities against each other to strengthen his nationalist vote base. Some groups of Muslims have already complained about a new wave of attacks since the Pohottuwa’s election victory. Mr Rajapaksa cannot politically survive without feeding into xenophobia and Sinhala Buddhist ultra-nationalism. While, most of his voters are not bigots, a fair bit of his socially conservative vote base tends to overlook those anomalies. Those around him are political opportunists. They are there to ride the gravy train on their own and not so much to serve the national interest. Minister Susil Premajyantha has announced 15 more would join the JO this week.
On the other hand, Mr. Wickremesinghe is a very weak leader to face off this Rajapaksa juggernaut. His ego and his preference to his Royal College Society at the expense of the competent leaders of the party had magnified his deficiencies. But, still, given the sorry status of our politics, he seems to be the only one available to lead. Speaker Karu Jayasuriya was mentioned as an alternative. He is, of course, a gentleman. But other than the charisma of a moderate nationalist leader, what else he offers, such as in terms of an economic vision, is not clear. There are others also vying for the leadership. They are poorly equipped to the job.
Mr. Wickremesinghe seems to have survived a mild party revolt, and also secured the numbers to form a UNP government. But, it is not yet clear whether he had dissected the causes of the failure of the first three years of yahapalanaya. If he proceeds along the same path, even if the government survives for the next three years, we will see the return of the Rajapaksa regime at the next general election.
To give the devil its due, Mr. Wckremesinghe is not corrupt, not a tyrant, without dynastic ambitions, and perhaps the only one who has a long term economic vision. But this is not Denmark. Sri Lanka’s social and economic conditions require certain other traits to lead the country to success.
And they are not necessarily nice ones. As Minister Champika Ranawaka has said somewhere, yahapalanaya’s obsession with yahapalanaya created quite a bit of anarchy in this country for the last three years. In our societies where institutions are weak, a determined minority can test the limits, escalate and bring the country to a grinding halt. It is these permissive conditions, and not so much so called perceived grievances, that created three insurgencies in the past. It is the same what happened in the past three years in a milder form, ranging from endless strikes and protests that had inconvenienced millions of people. Now, it is patently clear that the majority of the people did not buy the fallacy that freedom was chaos; they wanted order in the country.
Then there was perhaps deliberate holding back of investigations into corruption blamed on the former regime. The latest episode is the arrest and release of Udyanga Weeratunga in Dubai. Not long ago, Gotabaya Rajapaksa brought to Colombo LTTE gunrunner KP, who could have given hundred more excuses against being extradited. If we are to assume Law and Order Minister Sagala Ratnayake is innocent (for that we have to discount that one telephone call about a ‘Nilame’), and the failure was due to institutional incompetency, still the government is guilty of failing to provide direction and oversight.
If the government successfully conducted those investigations, today, there would not be a joint opposition.
The government cannot continue this way. Neither can Mr.Wickremesinghe nor his favoured individuals in the party have decisiveness that needs to accomplish certain tasks that are paramount not just for the survival of the government, but also for the long term interest of the country.
Mr. Wickremesinghe can assign positions to people who can deliver with a degree of enhanced efficiency. Minister SarathFonseka is the best bet. Perhaps Mr. Wickremesinghe and his advisers fear the former general’s authoritarian aura. But, that goes down well within the conservative Sinhala constituency. That is the most crucial bloc of the Sri Lankan electorate and is also the one that JO would mobilize against stepped up investigations into its own.Fonseka can catch the crooks and also pacify that constituency.
However, Mr. Rajapaksa is way too street smarter than the UNP leader. He reportedly telephoned Mr. Wickremesinghe last week, ostensibly to discuss political situation, and according to Minister RajithSenaratne told the prime minister not to resign. (Mr Rajapaksa has denied that)
One would doubt whether Mr. Rajapaksa is really keen to be the prime minister of a minority SLFP government. More likely, he is eyeing for snap elections at the opportune time, when the government in power makes the current rot much worse. In the time being, he would exchange his support in return for unofficial legal immunity for him and his family.
Assured by Mr, Rajapaksa, Mr. Wikremesinghe may think the threat for his premiership is over. But, actually, it has just begun.