Gotabaya Rajapaksa, the failed president
- The need for a president who will bring back the 19th A and abolish the executive presidency
- Ranil’s political swan song?
Gotabaya Rajapaksa did not want to leave as a failed president. In an interview with Bloomberg as recent as the 6th of June the deposed head of state vowed to finish his term because he did not want to leave as a failed president. In his quest to fulfil his ambitions the former president deepened Sri Lanka’s political and economic crises, entrenching the trail of destruction in his wake. Rajapaksa’s nemesis was his move to ban synthetic fertiliser and agro chemicals in his desire to make Sri Lanka the first country in the world to use only organic fertiliser. It was an experiment which was doomed from the start, with a domino effect on the tea industry and food production. Since some months back, agriculture experts have been warning that Sri Lanka is on the threshold of a national food crisis. Parallelly, shortsighted tax changes were made to appease cronies and the country’s forex reserves nosedived leading to shortages in domestic gas, food, fuel and medicine. Sri Lankans watched helpless, as inflation soared to hyperinflation of 54.6 percent and the rupee devalued by more than forty percent. The UN has said six million people in Sri Lanka have no food. They don’t know from where they will get their next meal.
Rajapaksa’s departure from the office of President was an ignominious one. On 9th July, millions of Sri Lankans thronged the gates of President’s House, his official residence in Fort, to oust him. For months they had been screaming at him to Go Home, but Gotabaya Rajapaksa refused to hear their call. Rajapaksa, whose claim to fame has been that he won the war against the Liberation of Tigers of Tamil Eelam, had to make a hasty retreat to the navy ship SLNS Gajabahu, which had dropped anchor in the Colombo Port. Another navy vessel SLNS Sindurala was ready to escort it. A request for two tugs had been made at 12. 45 pm and the two ships had left half an hour apart with the first leaving at 1. 15 pm and the second at 1. 45 pm enroute to the naval base in Trincomalee. Two months before on the 9th of May, his brother Mahinda ended up at the same destination after he fled Colombo in a helicopter following an outbreak of violence which was orchestrated by him.
A social media clip of luggage being loaded onto the vessels fueled speculation whether President Rajapaksa was leaving by sea although another of a convoy of defenders heading to the Bandaranaike International Airport would have been a welcome red herring. According to some media reports, the President had been inside President’s House until the protesters broke through the front gates. Defence Secretary Kamal Guneratne and the service chiefs who had been with him had reportedly told him that he should leave because they will have to shoot the protesters if not. It was then that the President had agreed to leave. The discovery by protesters of wads of newly printed currency notes of 17 million rupees which were later handed over to the police was telling. The President evidently had left in a hurry.
Rajapaksa’s precedents hound him like a shadow and have boomeranged on him. When Gotabaya was Defence Secretary when his older sibling and Mahinda Rajapakse was Prime MInister, he was accused of masterminding the now infamous white vans and other extra judicial actions including the killing of Sunday Leader Editor Lasantha Wickremetunge and disappearance of cartoonist Prageeth Ekneligoda. Many others like journalists Darisha Bastians and CID sleuth Nishantha Silva have fled the country to save their lives.
The chickens came home to roost for Rajapaksa when the many doors that he knocked on for refuge slammed shut on him. Both the USA and India turned down requests for Rajapaksa to enter their countries. He had failed to heed their earlier and repeated calls for a peaceful transition of power. In the end, it was the Maldives which allowed Rajapaksa a stop- over but that too after the current speaker of the Maldivian Majlis Mohammed Nasheed, a friend of Mahinda Rajapaksa and Ranil Wickremesinghe, prevailed on the Maldivian government. Rajapaksa had sheltered Nasheed in Sri Lanka during his times of strife with the government of Maumoon Abdul Gayoom and Nasheed was returning favours, which took place amidst protests by people in the Maldives. After one night in the Maldives, Rajapaksa was on the run again and was allowed into Singapore on the basis of a private visit but was told by the Singaporean government that he must leave in 15 days because they cannot guarantee him security. For now, Rajapaksa’s next known destination is Saudi Arabia although it is uncertain if this plan will go ahead given the clear message given by the countries that Rajapaksa has approached and transited so far in his sojourn. It is plausible that in a few weeks Rajapaksa may even head back to Sri Lanka, even surreptitiously. Sri Lanka Podujana Party Chairman GL Peiris confirmed that the Sri Lanka government will provide Rajapaksa the privileges of an ex- president.
Even in the throes of his final hours President Gotabaya fixed himself first and the country second. He made Sri Lankans wait for his letter of resignation which he said would be sent to the Speaker on the 13th of July but was sent only the day after on the 14th. Rajapaksa made sure he was out of reach of the long arm of the law and still protected by his presidential immunity before he submitted his resignation.
Ultimately, despite being at paints to prove otherwise, the legacy Gotabaya Rajapkase does leave behind is that of a failed president.
Rajapaksa has handed the baton to Ranil Wickremesinghe who remains Prime Minister while he is acting president until parliament elects a president tomorrow. The cry of the people is that like the Rajapaksas, Wickremesinghe must also resign because he has no legitimacy to be in parliament and is known to be a Rajapaksa protector. At the last parliamentary election in 2020, Wickremesinghe led the United National Party to a landslide defeat. For the first time in its history, it failed to secure a single seat in parliament except one through the National List and Wickremesinghe himself lost his own seat. But Wickremesinghe wants to realise his cherished ambition of becoming President and looks set to do it at any cost by holding the lives of 22 million people to ransom. Soon after Rajapaksa fled and even before he was de facto acting president, Wickremesinghe gave the military orders carte blanche to do ‘whatever is necessary to restore order ‘after protesters stormed his office in a symbolic takeover, the same as what they had done when they entered President’s House, the Presidential Secretariat and the prime minister’s official residence, Temple Trees.
Protests that have taken place since Gotabaya Rajapaksa left and under Wickremesinghe’s watch have taken a nastier turn. On Wednesday, a protest near parliament turned ugly after the army fired innumerable rounds of teargas and shot into the air. The army baton charged protesters ruthlessly leaving some 33 injured. Wickremesinghe, deeply unpopular among most quarters of the populace and in a bid to win hearts and minds was seen visiting two army men in hospital who were also injured during Wednesday’s protest. Shavendra Silva, the new Chief of Defence Staff, was also seen visiting the army men. Neither however expressed regret about the injured civilians. In another first, Suwaseriya ambulances that came to attend to the injured were stoned and their work was obstructed. The following day the police said two T56 automatic weapons had gone missing, but the army put the number of weapons missing to one.
The appointment of Wickremesinghe as president will derail the country’s economic and political future further. After the events of the 9th of July which led to the removal of Gotabaya Rajapaksa, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) fired another salvo at the government to resolve the political crisis to allow for the resumption of their dialogue on an IMF supported program. Central Bank Governor Dr Nandalal Weerasinghe told the BBC that the country will have to be shut down if it continues in this vein. With Wickremesinghe in the high -chair the Central Bank Governor’s future hangs in the balance. Not long ago, Wickremesinghe who has an axe to grind with the Governor over the bond scam, tried to unseat him and stop his tenure from being extended but had to contend with Gotabaya Rajapaksa who extended his term.
The urgent need of the hour for Sri Lanka is to appoint a president who has the political will to initiate the system change which the peoples’ movement has been crying out for with a representative democracy with checks and balances, transparency and accountability. This will definitely involve passing the best version of the 21st amendment ( bring back the 19th A) and abolishing the executive presidency which has contributed to Sri Lanka’s slide into authoritarianism. Wickremesinghe’s political trajectory and his alignment with the Rajapaksa family whose governments have been epitomized by unprecedented bribery, corruption and all that is wrong, is at odds with this. The bond scam which took place when Wickremesinghe was Prime Minister from 2015-2019, was comparable. It is a no brainer that Wickremesinghe, who has unspent political ambitions, will clearly not fit the bill. Days ago, the Ven. Omalpe Sobitha who has become a vocal political mover and shaker, proposed to the government to substitute five new national list members with new faces from outside. A move like this would have made it possible for a veteran politician like Karu Jayasuriya to enter parliament and become president to see through not just the vital political reform which is needed but also the linked economic reform.
Wickremesinghe is resolute with his ambition to sit in the president’s chair. He has been prime minister five times but the presidency has eluded him. This time he will be throwing his hat into the ring with SLPP parliamentarian Dullas Allahaperuma and National Peoples Power Leader Anura Kumara Dissanayake. Winning at a contest has not come easy to Wickremesinghe against whom the odds are stacked in what will effectively be a two- horse contest.
Wickremesinghe’s candidacy has led to a surfacing of the fissures in the SLPP. Before nominations for the presidency were accepted in parliament this morning, the SLPP’s secretary Sagara Kariyawasam, made public that the party will be supporting Wickremesinghe in the presidential race. It is widely rumoured that behind Kariyawasm is Basil Rajapaksa, alleged to be horse trading for support for Wickremesinghe, which could be the only means to swing the vote his way. The Bar Association of Sri Lanka which got a whiff of the allegations, issued a statement yesterday underscoring that it is a specific offence in law to unduly influence or bribe a member of parliament in respect of their vote. ‘Any attempt to use any threat, undue influence, coercion or bribe to influence such vote will be illegal and should not be condoned’, it said. In response to Kariyawasam’s announcement, Peiris issued a statement questioning the basis on which Wickremesinghe became the chosen one.
Like the Rajapaksas, Wickremesinghe is equally notorious for wreaking political ruin. He has the accolade of single handedly decimating the UNP, the country’s oldest political party by not grooming a successor, and for destabilizing the coalition government of 2015 with his back door support for the Rajapaksas. A loner in parliament without a single seat, the SLPP is now in his line of fire and whether Basil will allow his creation to come apart at the seams will come into play at the election tomorrow. Or, like the Rajapaksas, it could even be Wickremesinghe’s political swan song too.