Rajapaksa rule by proxy

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On Wednesday (20), Ranil Wickremesinghe was elected as the 8th executive president of Sri Lanka in a Parliamentary vote that vindicated, if anything, the disjuncture of the current Parliament and the public opinion. He won 134 votes against 82 of his closest rival, Samagi Jana Balawegaya-backed Dullas Alahapperuma.
Down but not out and after being turned back at the airport from his self-exile Basil Rajapaksa, Sri Lanka PoduJana Party (SLPP) strategist, called on his MPs to vote for Mr. Wickremesinghe.  The latter in return had promised reparations for MPs whose property was set ablaze by the angry public after the SLPP goons attacked peaceful protestors in GotagoGama. Wheeler-dealing aside, President Wickremesinghe would do justice to the newfound civic sense of the Sri Lankan public, if he cares to look into whether such assets are declared in the mandatory asset declarations of the MPs. According to Transparency International, only 15 out of 225 members in Parliament have made their asset declarations public. 
Old guard’s return to power by proxy

 Mr. Wickremesinghe’s election to Presidency is legal for it followed the constitutional process that outlines the appointment of a successor to the office vacant by an incumbent for the remainder of his term. But being constitutional does not garner his legitimacy. Like Parliament that elected him, his presidency is devoid of legitimacy. His election and its immediate aftermath, including the crackdown at the dawn and an interim Cabinet smack of the undoing of the revolutions of the Post-Arab Spring. The return of the old guard and their gradual strangulation of the civic activism, be it in Egypt or most recently Tunisia. Old institutions, structures and power centres in those countries not only did resist the change but reversed it. In Sri Lanka, the process might be less sinister than in the Middle East; it is a Parliament elected by an overwhelming vote of a constituency that was hypnotized by racist dog whistling and pie in the sky economic promises. None of that garner any legitimacy to Mr. Wickremesinghe or the current ‘interim Cabinet’. They are a vindication of the hollowness of the highest elected offices and institutions that would Sri Lanka, if nothing untoward happens ( that is a big if) for the next two years the least.

 All that meant that the new President should have approached with a willingness to strike a compromise to bring together the divided country. After all, Mr. Wickremesinghe should know deep down in heart, he is probably the main beneficiary of the Aragayalaya, unbeknownst to all who spearheaded it. How on earth a man who could not get elected to parliament through preferential votes end up as the president, if not for the political vaccum created by the mass protests. 

 Alas! First thing in the office, he ordered a crackdown on the protestors camped in front of the President Office. In the wee hours of Friday, a large contingent of security forces personnel, face covered in balaclava, reminiscent of Black Cats and PRA of an era not unfamiliar to Mr. Wickremesinghe, stormed the protest site, assaulted protestors, including some who are differently abled, manhandled the media personnel and demolished the huts. All that despite the protestors have earlier agreed to vacate the place by 2.00 pm that day. 

Mr. Wickremesinghe is no fool. He knew his election generated a good deal of bad blood and a crackdown would multiply it. He knew a violent attack – which Gotabaya Rajapaksa, given the man his due detested, otherwise it would have been a bloodbath – would have provoked widespread condemnation at home, and around the democratic world. He prides in his claims of having good relations with the West. They all raised concerns over his use of force on Friday.

 Then why did he do it? Probably petty vindictiveness got the best of him. He showed a great deal of sorrow at the torching of his residence by the mobs, which is of course a crime. 

Perhaps, that is his way of ingratiating to the military as the commander in chief. However, the military top brass should not have misgivings. Violence that was seen as taboo in Gotabaya presidency does not become permissible under Ranil Wickremesinghe. War crime investigations may be a bit of a stretch, but any crackdown on peaceful protests should lead to speedy trials under a new government and hold chain of command responsible from top to bottom.
Who are the winners?

A headline of editorial in Sunday Times, our sister paper surmised Mr. Wickremesinghe’s rise to presidency as ‘Modern day political chess Grandmaster checkmates them all’.

Mr. Wickremesinghe’s actual performance in political game of chess is not as grand as it appears, he indeed had resounding success with nominating Maithripala Sirisena as president, though the latter backstabbed him later. Rajapaksas ran circles around Mr. Wickremesinghe most of last two decades, Veluppillai Prabakaran orchestrated his defeat on two occasions, without which it could have been a different track record.  

But if there is a chess master in this game, it is not Mr. Wickremesinghe, but a different kind of crash opportunistic ‘Kaputa hit the plane’ styled third world political chess: Basil Rajapaksa. 

It was the latter’s long hand that won this game of political chess. Mr. Wickremesinghe is a pawn promoted to a Queen by Basil. Mr. Wickremesinghe does not own this victory, it is unlikely he would own his destiny. After all, the Pohottuwa can find enough votes to impeach him when it pleases them. All that the Rajapaksas cannot find is one who can better represent their interests for the time being in the highest elected office.

Thus whatever President Wickremesinghe would say to rebuff, his reign is the Rajapaksa rule by proxy. It is unlikely that Sri Lankan courts would try the old regime members for their abuses, corruption and mismanagement during the Wickremesinghe presidency. 

 The 18 member all male cabinet, the President appointed is an extension of the old guard, and the Rajapaksa rule. Worst still, if Parliament is a mismatch of public will, his cabinet is a complete disjuncture of the composition of population itself.  “Are there no women in Sri Lanka,” cynics pondered in social media. Another quipped, “they are in the Middle East …and garment factories.”

He overlooked 50% of Sri Lankan population. It would have helped the president appointed at least a nominal representation. He overlooked competent women like Dr. Sudharshani Fernandopulle in favour of old timer Keheliya Rambukwella. The new president and his interim government is a continuation of the old guard by proxy. How fast they consolidate this stronghold depends on how fast the fatigue set in the Sri Lankan public, who has much need a system change, also need stability. 

It is the premise of stability that every returning autocrat used in the Post Arab Spring Middle East to wrest back the control and reverse the change.
Possible way forward 
The president says the Cabinet is interim and awaiting cooperation from the opposition. The latter on their part believe Mr. Wickremesinghe’s days are numbered, and if his crash from the political high office will be rapid and far more dramatic than his predecessors. That thinking however a recipe for instability, but Mr. Wickremesinghe and Pohottuwa allies who monopolized power in Parliament leaves no room for different approach. 
A cabinet lacking in a representation from the main opposition SJB is void of legitimacy and is more susceptible for the next bout of public anger. That would have a heavy toll on the country’s negotiations with the IMF and donor nations. How the President makes joining him a more palatable option to the SJB is something he should find out if he is truly a grandmaster in politics.
However, a few genuine gestures of change would help. First is, the introduction of the 19th Amendment, which he himself has championed. (That has its down side of making him more vulnerable to Pohottuwa, but still is an important step to make sure that Sri Lanka is governed by institutions and no personal whims and fancies of powers that be). Second, he should spearhead the economic reform package, including much needed overhaul of SOE. Yahapalanaya wanted to bring the SOEs under public holding company model after Singapore’s Tamasek Holdings. This is the opportune moment to do that.
Third true to the new found civic mindedness in display in the streets, a new Constitution should ensure the equal rights of all citizens, irrespective ethnicity, religion, class, creed, gender and sexual identity and orientation. Until recently, these issues have been monopolized by a loud minority of racists, bigots and homophobes. President Wickremesinghe is neither of them, but a large number of Pohottuwa MPs are. But they are now preoccupied with mundane tasks.
It is time for genuine change. Mr. Wickremesinghe has realized his dream of being president. If he genuinely care, it is time for him to help Sri Lankans realize their collective dream.
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