An autocrat in democratic clothing
  • The only face-saving measures Wickremesinghe has adopted are sticking to a programme of economic reform that has alleviated the acute hardships of essential goods and services such as gas, fuel, and electricity, which were prevalent around this time last year.



This week Ranil Wickremesinghe ‘celebrates’ one year in office as President. Does the nation celebrate alongside him? Most certainly not.

Wickremesinghe’s ascension to the Presidency was unexpected. Although there were people praising him for his perseverance and for not giving up, the reality is different. When he accepted the Premiership from Gotabaya Rajapaksa that was going abegging, he did so because, at the tail end of his political career, he had nothing to lose and everything to gain.


Also, Rajapaksa was offering it to him- instead of Sajith Premadasa or Sarath Fonseka- because he was the only person who could be trusted to protect the Rajapaksas. In offering the Prime Minister’s post to Wickremesinghe, Rajapaksa was only trying to ensure his own survival and that of his family. So, Rajapaksa had no intentions of stepping down a in a few months. It would therefore be incorrect to assume that due to his political wisdom, Wickremesinghe foreshadowed the events that were to follow and accepted the Premiership knowing it would be a steppingstone to greater heights.


To be fair, the process that brought the Presidency to Wickremesinghe was constitutionally correct. That it selected a National List parliamentarian from a party that was totally rejected by the people at the last election makes the choice morally repugnant to most people. Having percolated for almost half a century in the cesspit that is Sri Lankan politics however, such concerns mattered little to Wickremesinghe.


The man who contested two presidential elections and lost, the man who reduced the once invincible United National Party (UNP) built by J.R. Jayewardene and Ranasinghe Premadasa to rubble suddenly found himself handed the position he coveted all his life, granted to him without an election, being subjected not to a vote by more than 16 million people but a poll among a mere 225 parliamentarians.


Forty-five years after he began scratching the surface of Sri Lankan politics, Wickremesinghe had hit the jackpot. Having done so, Wickremesinghe had two options before him. He could either think of the next generation, play statesman and brought in the reforms that the people were clamouring for in the ‘aragalaya’ that ousted Gotabaya Rajapaksa. Alternatively, he could think of the next election, play politician and continue the well-entrenched corrupt system that we have experienced for the past three quarters of a century. Events of the past year have clearly shown us that he has opted for the latter.


It has been said in Wickremesinghe’s defence that he is a ‘prisoner’ of Parliament which is dominated by the Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP) which still commands a majority there and that is why he is not cracking the whip on the undesirable elements of the government or the Rajapaksa clan. That is simply not correct.


As of February this year, Wickremesinghe was empowered to dissolve Parliament. He does not need to be held to ransom by the Rajapaksas or the SLPP. If he was sincere in his intentions, he could have used the time from July last year to February this year to reorganise his UNP, act against the corruption that was rampant during the Rajapaksa eras and cobbled together a coalition of like-minded, well-intentioned politicians from the entire political spectrum including even a few from the SLPP and contested a general election with that grouping, where the UNP could have been the main partner.


Had he struck the correct notes, even the Samagi Jana Balavegaya could have been lured back to their parent party. Had he done so, he would still have nothing to lose because he would remain President regardless of who won the general election- and he would have generated so much goodwill among voters that the next presidential election would have been a cakewalk for him.


Instead, Wickremesinghe has chosen the less arduous path: cosy up to the Rajapaksas in the hope that they can deliver to him at the next election the population demographic that always eluded him, the Sinhala Buddhist majority. In the meantime, not only does he turn a blind eye to the offences of commission and omission of the previous regime, he engages in tactics that are very similar to those adopted by the Rajapaksas during their heyday, earning the sobriquet ‘Ranil Rajapaksa’ in the process.


The Rajapaksa tactics of appeasing their favourites and making them exempt from the law (as with Diana Gamage, Lohan Ratwatte and Ali Sabry Raheem) and their tactics of intimidating perceived opponents (as it was with Wasantha Mudalige and Natasha Edirisooriya) have been replicated. No person tainted with corruption allegations during the previous regime has been probed, let alone prosecuted.


Perhaps his greatest misdemeanour during the past year was his arbitrary decision to postpone local government elections. The various measures he used and abused for that purpose and the pathetic excuses that were trotted out to justify those actions showed that he is now an autocrat in a democrat’s clothing. In doing so, Wickremesinghe has alienated a large section of what could have been his vote base and more importantly, allowed the SLPP and the Rajapaksa dynasty which was heading towards oblivion, to have a new lease of life.


The only face-saving measures Wickremesinghe has adopted are sticking to a program of economic reform that has alleviated the acute hardships of essential goods and services such as gas, fuel and electricity which were prevalent around this time last year. Even so, his unbridled commitment to privatisation which includes selling of profitable state ventures such as the Sri Lanka Insurance Corporation, Lanka Hospitals and Sri Lanka Telecom have raised eyebrows with concerns about who will be profiting from such sales.


If one were to analyse Wickremesinghe’s decisions over the past year, it is clear that President Wickremesinghe is a very different person to Wickremesinghe, the great liberal democrat who was Leader of the Opposition or even Prime Minister Wickremesinghe. As President, he has transformed into a self-centred autocrat whose sole focus now is winning the 2024 presidential elections.


We strongly disagree with the general perception that Wickremesinghe is an astute politician. In fact, he is a very mediocre one. Whenever he had power as a Prime Minister, he couldn’t last a full term of office. With the latest shenanigans he has engaged in, he has done little for the Sri Lankan electorate to trust him with another term of office- or ever again.