The President of Sri Lanka has appointed a new Prime Minister, Ranil Wickremesinghe, a well-known face in the role, as the country’s economic crisis turns into a veritable political disaster and a violent conflagration between the security forces, supporters of the current president and protesters calling for radical political and economic change.
Wickremesinghe returns to office after five previous stints as prime minister of the country; he is replacing former Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa, who, along with his brother, President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, ignored the country’s economic collapse. Mahinda resigned last week amid increasingly violent protests, during which nine people were killed and more than three hundred woundedaccording to Reuters.
Like that of Vox Natasha Ishak explained in April, Sri Lanka’s economy is in ruins largely due to the country’s default on some $ 50 billion in foreign loans, for the first time in its history as an independent nation. The past three years have seen successive successes to Sri Lanka’s overseas tourism sector – a series of church bombings in 2019, the Covid-19 pandemic and the Russian invasion of Ukraine – which previously brought in about 4.4 billion. dollars a year and was an important economic engine. Those crises, exacerbated by Rajapaksa’s financial mismanagement, led to a severe shortage of goods including milk, fuel, food and medicine, and prolonged power outages, in turn leading to widespread protests and a spiral of political chaos. .
The Rajapaksa are a political dynasty in Sri Lanka and their reach in government has been significant; as well as Mahinda and Gotabaya, their brother served until April 4 as finance minister. Gotabaya, the president, fired his younger brother, Basil, and replaced other cabinet officials at the time, but both protesters and politicians were not impressed; Udaya Gammanpila, head of the Pivithuru Hela Urumaya party, wrote on Twitter that the passage was reminiscent of “the old wine in a new bottle”, according to Reuters.
Of course, Sri Lanka’s economic woes did not start with the current Rajapaksa government, as the International Crisis Group has stated. Alan Keenan explained in an April piece:
“Sri Lanka’s economic disaster has deep roots: the country has long lived beyond its means – borrowing too much and taxing too little – and has produced below its potential. But the Rajapaksa administration’s gross negligence in economic matters since it came to power in November 2019 has greatly aggravated the island’s chronic problems. ”
However, the dynasty has been a big part of the problem since Mahinda was first elected president in 2005, as the 2018 piece of the The New York Times describes it. Over the past decade, the country has secured a number of loans, including about $ 5 billion from China. Through its so-called Belt and Road, China has invested in numerous infrastructure projects in more than 100 countries around the world; apparently, such projects would create jobs and, in the case of Sri Lanka, provide a port on a vibrant trade route. However, as Ishak pointed out in his piece, the Hambantota Port project in the end was delivered to China as a guarantee when the Sri Lankan government was unable to repay or renegotiate the loans or successfully complete the project, due, at least in part, to rampant corruption.
Gotabaya was elected president in 2019 and the Rajapaksa dynasty was back in office; this meant more ambitious infrastructure projects, despite the increase in external debt e decreasing foreign exchange reserves importing basic necessities, due to the lack of foreign income from tourism and other sectors. Gotabaya also cut taxes when he came to power, inhibiting the government’s ability to buy foreign exchange reserves. Additionally, a 2021 ban on the import of chemical fertilizers, which was meant to save those foreign exchange reserves, decimated the agricultural sector.
what turned out Keenan writes, is “Sri Lanka’s worst economic crisis in nearly 75 years of independence”. The protests, he wrote in April, “have now turned into a national uprising”, despite the Rajapaksa government’s “reputation for political repression”. even the protesters forced Mahinda to flee her propertyTemple Trees and resigned on Monday after attempting to breach the compound.
Who is Ranil Wickremesinghe?
nach timid attempts to form a new government in April and amid mounting threats to his government, Gotabaya appointed Wickremesinghe to take over his brother’s office; he was sworn in on Thursday and first served as prime minister in 1993 under President DB Wijetunga.
Wickremesinghe is the product of families long active in the civil service and in the political class, which date back even before independence, as reported by Al Jazeera. Trained as a lawyer, Wickremesinghe is now head of the United National Party of Sri Lanka and has held various government posts, including Deputy Foreign Minister and Minister of Industry. In that post, Wickremesinghe brought in foreign investors, perhaps a crucial selling point for his current position, as his relations with India and Western countries could help negotiate Sri Lanka from the current economic turmoil.
However, as the BBC points outWickremesinghe has never served a full term as prime minister and is perceived as being close enough to the Rajapaksa clan despite being in the opposition party – even, according to some critics, protecting them when they lost power in 2015. Additionally, Wickremesinghe was in office during the Easter attacks in 2019 – and claimed to be “out of the loopRegarding the warnings about the attacks, which killed at least 250 people.
How can Sri Lanka get out of this crisis?
In the face of deepening economic crises, violent protests and entrenched government corruption, the future of the Sri Lankan government is dark at best. As of now, the protesters are demanding that the remaining members of the Rajapaksa family, including Gotabaya, the president, whose office demonstrators have occupied the entrance for the past month – be removed from the government. Many also see Wickremesinghe’s appointment as a slap in the face and emblematic of Gotabaya’s longtime refusal to admit his government’s role in the crisis.
According to Paikiasothy Saravanamuttu, executive director of the Center for Policy Alternatives, a Colombo-based think tank, Wickremesinghe has a huge task ahead of him if he is to lead the country out of the current crisis.
“Mr. Wickremesinghe needs to focus on both the political and economic dimensions of our governance crisis,” he told Vox via email. “The neglect of the political dimensions will undermine the economic one”.
Chief among the problems Wickremesinghe faces is securing the assistance of the International Monetary Fund to buy basic necessities, Saravanamuttu said. The IMF can issue quick finance instruments, or RFIs, to countries in need of immediate assistance due to natural disasters or other forces beyond its control, but Sri Lankan circumstances are outside the typical mandate of a RFI. Finance Minister Ali Sabry, who replaced Basil Rajapaksa, formally requested assistance from the IMF in April and worked with the IMF to try to broker some sort of deal; however, like him said in a speech to Parliament In early May, any deal will be based on the nation’s debt restructuring and would take six months to put in motion.
But the economic and political crises are so deeply intertwined that, Saravanamuttu said, resolving one would not alleviate the other; both problems need to be addressed for Sri Lanka to recover. “[Wickremesinghe] it must ensure that we get the bridge financing and the agreement with the IMF, as well as carve out the powers of the executive presidency and set a date for Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s resignation and for the abolition of the office of executive presidency, “he said. Wickremesinghe is, according to the Associated Pressmeeting with diplomats from Japan, the United States, the European Union, Germany, China and India to pitch the idea of an aid consortium to help save the country quickly, but the political dimensions still need to be substantially addressed.
As of now, Gotabaya has expressed no intention to step down from his post and retains broad executive powers established under his government in October 2020; this includes the power to fix a series of major appointments and to dissolve parliament at any time after half of its five-year term. Even if Gotabaya has he pitched the idea of reducing those powers and on Wednesday reiterated his intention to do so in a speech to the nation, which has yet to move forward. Since Saturday he has held office and appointed four new cabinet ministers, all belonging to his Sri Lankan Podujana Peramuna party, in an attempt to achieve stability until the formation of a new government. A severe nationwide curfew, imposed on Monday, continues, as well as orders to the security services to shoot on the spot anyone believed to be participating in vandalism or arson.
But the protesters, both on the street and onlinethey are still calling for the resignation of Gotabaya, which Saravanamuttu said was crucial for the country’s future.
“The demands of the people are that the president leave and failure to respond to this will be to the detriment of the country.”