Colombo, May 15: Sri Lanka’s new Prime Minister, Ranil Wickremesinghe, has been subjected to jibes and invectives from political opponents, armchair pundits and the media, both mainstream and social. But political realties being what they are, the 73 year-old sixth time Prime Minister is more likely to survive in office than be hounded out of it.
In fact, he is expected to get majority support in parliament, though his party, United National Party (UNP), has only one MP (that is himself). When his support base is tested in parliament on May 17, he might romp home with a comfortable majority. Many political parties and groups have now come round to accepting him as PM if only to have a stable government to tackle the grave economic crisis. MPs, across the board, are now realizing that the major powers of the world, who are also the donors or potential donors, are watching their antics with increasing anxiety, and the flow of funds from abroad might stop if instability continues.
Be that as it may, Wickremesinghe’s real challenge is not so much within parliament, but outside parliament, on the economic front. The country’s forex reserves continue to be abysmally low – US$ 50 million according to the Central Bank Governor Nandala Weerasinghe. But US$ 70 million is immediately required to offload a consignment of fuel which has arrived. Indian aid, now notching up to US$ 3.5 billion, is keeping the economy from sinking, but in three months’ time, that flow will come to a halt. The promised Chinese aid of US$ 2.5 billion is yet to materialize due to some conditions placed by Beijing, according to Sunday Times. Reportedly Sri Lanka immediately needs US$ 1 to billion.
The expected IMF facility will take six months to be extended, according to the Governor of the Central Bank. But once the Staff Level Agreement with the IMF is signed, the World Bank and the ADB will extend help it is said. The World Bank has already given US$ 600 million.
Western countries have not even offered bilateral or multilateral help. As a Sri Lankan academic once out, the “Americans come with a bagful of advice not money.” Japan is the only country from the Western camp which is likely to help because of its long-standing position as a leading donor. Even now, its loans to Sri Lanka are slightly more than China’s, accounting for 10.8% of the total Sri Lankan external debt of US$ 51 billion.
Wickremesinghe is keenly aware of the dire economic situation and has told the media that his first task will be to see that the public get their basic needs such as food and fuel. “I will see that every Sri Lankan has three meals a day,” he said.
Towards this end, he has set up a small task force and held preliminary talks with the envoys of India, China, the US and Japan, which have resulted in promises of cooperation. The West and India have welcomed his appointment as Prime Minister as they view him as their friend. He is Right of Center in ideology and is pro-West, though not antagonistic China. He is a known advocate of integrating Sri Lanka’s economy with India, especially, the five South Indian States of Tamil Nadu, Kerala, Telangana, Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh. He was keen on giving the contract to build and run the Easter Container Terminal in Colombo port to India, but President Maithripala Sirisena thwarted it.
Wickremesihghe’s relations with China were frosty in the initial stages of his last stint as Prime Minister. He called a halt to the Chinese-funded and executed Colombo Port City project, but after a year and a half, entered into a deal with the Chinese, re-naming the project as the Colombo Financial City and giving them a give piece of land there for their exclusive use. He gave the Hambantota port to China on a 99-year lease for US$ 1.1 billion, terms deemed very favorable to the Chinese.
However, China appears to be a bit wary about recent developments in Sri Lanka, mainly due to the active role being taken by India with the active cooperation of the Sri Lankan government. But India stepped in partly because the Chinese were prevaricating on helping Sri Lanka. Beijing wanted Colombo to go by its advice on how to tackle the economic problem. Beijing was overlooking the fact that what Sri Lanka was facing was an economic emergency needing an urgent infusion of loads of cash. India understood the Lankans’ plight better and responded with alacrity and generously, earning the gratitude of the powers-that-be in Colombo as well as the man-in-the-street.
Eventually, China may come up with an aid package if only to keep its place in Sri Lanka which in terms of investment is substantial (over US$ 5 billion). China is especially interested in checkmating India geo-politically in the island, including the Tamil-speaking Northern and Eastern provinces. The Chinese Ambassador Qi Zhenhong had had a much publicized visit to the North. He is now eying the East, where India has a strategic interest, especially in Trincomalee.
On the domestic political front, matters are now going Wickremesinghe’s way. He has already secured the full support of the biggest party in parliament, the Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP). Rebels from the SLPP-led ruling alliance, who are sitting in parliament as Independents, have stated that they will support Wickremesinghe’s good policies and oppose the bad ones. The main opposition party, the Samage Jana Balawegaya (SJB) has come round to saying the same thing. The Tamil National Alliance (TNA) and the Tamil Progressive Alliance (TPA) have also joined the chorus on giving selective and principled support to tide over the economic crisis. The Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP), led by former President Maithripala Sirisenam has also said that it will support the government.
Only the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) with 3 MPs is adamant about opposing the government as it feels that President Gotabaya Rajapaksa should not have made Wickremesinghe Prime Minister when the latter’s party had been wiped out in the last elections and Wickremesinghe himself had entered parliament only as a nominated member.
Though political circles give many reasons for President’s decision to make Wickremesinghe Prime Minister, the most cited reason is that he has entered into a deal with Wickremesinghe to run the administration smoothly and successfully so that, at a suitable time, he will be given a safe exit from power and perhaps the country itself. It is said that the President had agreed to assist the repeal of the 20 th.Amendment of 2020 which had given him dictatorial powers and substitute it with the 21 st.Amendment which will be a new avatar of the 19 th.Amendment under which the President would only be a figurehead and not a functioning Executive President. Reportedly, Gotabaya Rajapaksa had also told Wickremesinghe to take all decisions and promised to sign on the dotted line.
With the political decks cleared or about to be cleared, Wickremesinghe will be able attend to the urgent task of ensuring a steady flow of foreign exchange. He would engage in intensive diplomacy with all major powers and international financial institutions to meet the basic needs of the much deprived and helpless people of Sri Lanka and also put the derailed Lankan economy back on the rails.