President Ranil Wickremesinghe’s recent outburst at the western bloc has raised many an eyebrow. It is considered uncharacteristic of the leader of a party known to espouse western liberalism. Wickremesinghe’s uncle, the late President J. R. Jayewardene, whom he considers his political guru, was so pro-American that he was known as Yankee Dickie. Wickremesinghe himself used to draw flak from his political opponents for being at the beck and call of the West.

Speaking after the ceremonial opening of the new court complex at Welimada, last Friday (03), President Wickremesinghe lambasted the western nations for their double standards on human rights in Sri Lanka and Gaza. The Presidential Media Division reported that ‘pointing out that the West, including the USA have passed resolutions against Sri Lanka for its human rights record, the President questioned why there was a difference in the approach taken by these nations towards Sri Lanka and Gaza, where similar issues were prevalent. He stressed that the same rules should apply to both regions. The President highlighted that, according to international law, measures taken to combat terrorism must fully comply with states’ obligations.”

What President Wickremesinghe has said in his Welimada speech is in stark contrast to the policies of the Yahapalana government, of which he was the Prime Minister; in 2015, that administration co-sponsored a UN Human Rights Council resolution (No: 30/1), which the US was instrumental in having adopted, and committed itself to establishing “a judicial mechanism with a special counsel to investigate allegations of violations and abuses of human rights and violations of international humanitarian law” and affirmed that “a credible justice process should include independent judicial and prosecutorial institutions led by individuals known for their integrity and impartiality.” It also affirmed “the importance of participation in a Sri Lankan judicial mechanism, including the special counsel’s office, of Commonwealth and other foreign judges, defence lawyers and authorized prosecutors and investigators.” It renewed these commitments in two further UNHRC resolutions in 2017 and 2019 much to the consternation of the nationalistic organizations here.

The SLPP made the most of the above-mentioned resolution and the Yahapalana government’s backing to mobilize the nationalistic forces against the UNP and Wickremesinghe and win elections—local government (2018), presidential (2019) and parliamentary (2020). The SLPP reduced the UNP to 249,453 votes (2.15%) and a single National List seat at the 2020 general election, where Wickremesinghe failed to retain his parliamentary seat.

Why has President Wickremesinghe become so critical of the West, and its approach to Sri Lanka’s human rights issues?

Politics as the art of the possible

Nothing remains constant in politics, which Bismarck has described as the art of the possible, the attainable—and the art of the next best. So, it is not surprising that policies of politicians and political parties change or even undergo sea changes at times. Those who do not adapt to change run the risk of being politically extinct like dinosaurs.

Time was when the JVP would detest everything about the US and other members of the capitalist bloc, but today it is busy forging ties with the high priests of global capitalism. JVP leader Anura Kumara Dissanayake, who has drawn criticism for his recent US tour, which was part of his party’s campaign to drum up international support for its cause, has said there is nothing wrong with having good relations with the US. The JVP has also come to terms with the Provincial Council system, which it resorted to violence to scuttle albeit in vain, in the late 1980s and reconciled itself to the capitalist economic policies, which it rejected lock, stock and barrel.

All political parties and their leaders have made policy about-turns, prominent among them being the one the executive presidency.

Changing electoral realities

Minority communities and their political parties used to back the UNP and Wickremesinghe overwhelmingly at elections. It is believed that Wickremesinghe would have won the 2005 presidential election if the LTTE had not declared a polls boycott in areas under its control at that time. The UNP accused Mahinda Rajapaksa of having won the presidency by bribing the LTTE into preventing the Tamils from voting for Wickremesinghe. Minority political parties also played a pivotal role in defeating President Rajapaksa in 2015, facilitating the formation of the UNP-led Yahapalana government and defeating the then President Maithripala Sirisena’s efforts to topple it in 2018. In 2020, the minority parties, however, sided with the SJB consisting of UNP dissidents, and the UNP fell between two stools—it lost the support of both the minorities and the Sinhalese. No benefit accrued to Wickremesinghe electorally from the UNP’s pro-western policies, which in fact proved political disadvantageous. Its off-shoot, the SJB managed to secure 2,771,984 votes (23.9%) and 54 seats by dissociating itself from the UNP’s policies.

The UNP has alienated the minorities owing to its political marriage with the SLPP, which the Tamils and the Muslims are not well disposed towards. President Wickremesinghe has sought to win over the Tamil political parties by undertaking to implement the 13th Amendment fully, but there is no way he could accomplish that task under his own steam, for his party has only a single seat in the current parliament, and the SLPP is not for granting police and land powers to the Provincial Councils. It is doubtful whether the Tamil political parties will forgive him for his association with the SLPP and back him at the next presidential election even if they consider he has a genuine desire to devolve more power.

The next presidential election is likely to be a five-cornered contest with the UNP, the SLPP, the SLFP the SJB and the JVP fielding candidates. Speculation is rife in political circles that the Tamil political parties will also field a separate presidential candidate.

The UNP is far from revitalized although Wickremesinghe has secured the presidency. It will have to eat into the vote bases of the other political parties, especially the SJB and the SLPP, to strengthen itself. Wickremesinghe has apparently sought to endear himself to the SLPP constituency by taking on the western bloc, and the UNHRC.