by Emanuele Giordana
Ranil Wikremesinghe has been elected as the new President of Sri Lanka on Wednesday July 20th. Of the 225 voting MPs, gave 134 supported him against only 82 for his biggest rival, Dullas Alahapperuma. The reasons for the choice seem to lie in a mixture of factors, but mainly in two concepts: continuity, i.e. his knowledge of the state machine to prevent it from descending into chaos, and respectability in the eyes of the foreign powers with whom Sri Lanka’s 50 billion dollar debts are to be negotiated.
But in the eyes of the populace, who wanted his resignation as PM – they set fire to his house and occupied his offices – Ranil represents a continuity of a different – and worse – kind. As for respectability, his questionable role is due precisely to his belonging to a continuity guaranteed by six terms as PM. Not least because, having been appointed temporary president by the fleeing former head of state (who took refuge in Singapore), Wikremesinghe imposed and prolonged the state of emergency.
A historically centre-right man, supported by the Sri Lankan Podujana Peramuna (SLPP) – the family party of the Rajapaksa clan – Ranil was considered the only one capable of negotiating the debt situation with the IMF, Indian and Chinese Bm. He defeated Alahapperuma, a SLPP man who enjoyed the explicit support of Mahinda Rajapaksa, also marking a split in the majority party that was now in clear identity crisis. The paradox is therefore that he was elected by a party with which he has always clashed, also because he has twice tried – in vain – to run for the presidency The left, represented by the candidate Anura Kumara Dissanayake, leader of the former insurrectionist Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna party, only received the votes of its only three MPs.
If for the SLPP Wikremesinghe represents the possibility of avoiding a future electoral debacle, and if for Ranil the presidency is the way to continue to be the arbiter of the country’s destiny, it is quite clear how his election may have been digested by the square. Which, at the moment, has, however, avoided a new flare-up of protest in a state of tension that makes one imagine it is ready to revive under well-lit embers.
After all, when in May Mahinda Rajapaksa, the President’s brother, had to resign as Prime Minister on the wave of popular protest, Gotabaya Rajapaksa resorted to Ranil Wikremesinghe, hoping that he would remove the chestnuts from the fire. But the new partnership between former enemies, now reiterated by yesterday’s parliamentary vote, has only projected in the popular imagination the idea – not entirely peregrine – that these elites are not to be trusted. Gotabaya moreover ran away by giving him the post of temporary president. It is hard to imagine that Ranil did not know that his appointee was packing his bags with the complicity of the navy.
Cover image: Ranil Wikremesinghe