In a secret ballot on Wednesday, Sri Lanka’s parliament chose six-time Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe as the country’s new President. It comes amid an unprecedented three-year-long economic crisis that has seen inflation soar above 50%, pushed more than 2 million people below the poverty line and caused widespread shortages in essential items such as food and medicine—which in turn kick-started mass protests in March.
It’s a controversial choice, to say the least.
Wickremesinghe had already been serving as interim president since July 15 after his predecessor President Gotabaya Rajapaksa became the first Sri Lankan leader to flee the country and then resign. In a dramatic scene, protesters had stormed the presidential palace on July 9 and demanded that Rajapaksa step down, which he did on July 14 after leaving Sri Lanka. Although Wickremesinghe is backed by the country’s ruling coalition led by the nationalist Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP), demonstrators had already been calling on Wickremesinghe to step aside ahead of the vote. Some protesters were burning Wickremesinghe’s effigy, according to the Associated Press.
Following Wednesday’s secret ballot, Wickremesinghe can stay on as President up until 2024, when the current presidential term ends. But he is deeply unpopular among the Sri Lankan public. “[Protesters] see him as continuing the same policies of Gotabaya,” says Bhavani Fonseka, a human rights lawyer and senior researcher at the Centre for Policy Alternatives in Colombo, the capital. If Wickremesinghe can hold onto power, his main tasks will be restoring political and economic stability. “Both are mammoth tasks. But you won’t be able to get much stability if there are continued protests and if the protesters are not satisfied this uncertainty will continue,” Fonseka adds.
Why did former President Gotabaya Rajapaksa flee the country?
Rajapaksa fled the country after growing and persistent protests calling for him to leave. Protesters had held demonstrations decrying the economic crisis for more than 100 days and stormed into the building on July 9. “It was purely because of security. They seem to have anticipated the large number that descended on Colombo on July 9,” Fonseka says.
Rajapaksa was elected President in 2019 and came into office years after his brother, Mahinda, held the same role from 2005-2014. Upon his election, Gotabaya appointed Mahinda as Prime Minister, who resigned in May this year, in what experts say was a bid to placate protests while keeping the family in power. (The Prime Minister is the second most-powerful role in Sri Lanka’s government.) Gotabaya had also appointed other members of his family to key positions—brothers Basil became finance minister, Chamal irrigation minister and Namal sports and youth minister.
Protesters blame the Rajapaksa family—a politically powerful dynasty that has wielded great influence in Sri Lanka over the last two decades—for mismanagement and corruption that has plunged Sri Lanka into an economic crisis.
“Income streams have declined but the cost of living has almost doubled,” says Ahilan Kadirgamar, a political economist at the University of Jaffna, in northern Sri Lanka. “[People are] asking: why is this happening to us? What went wrong?”
What’s behind the protests and instability in Sri Lanka
Sri Lanka has long scored well on health and education development indicators—given its free health care and education policies—but economic mismanagement, the pandemic’s effect on tourism, the war in Ukraine pushing up food and fuel prices, and a government policy to ban chemical fertilizers all contributed to the country’s crisis.
The pandemic led Sri Lanka to close its borders for more than a year—resulting in a massive economic blow for a country that relies heavily on its tourism sector. By March 2020, the Sri Lankan government knew the situation was dire, experts say. “They could have started restricting imports back then to save up our foreign reserves but neither the government nor the opposition wants to do it, because they’re so caught up in the World Bank, IMF paradigm of trade liberalization—that to touch imports is taboo until you absolutely can’t,” Kadirgamar says.
Instead, the central bank started printing more money to handle the depletion in foreign reserves brought in by the decline in tourism, triggering record inflation levels.
Then, in an effort to save money and redirect the country towards organic farming, the government banned chemical fertilizers in a widely criticized move. The ban lasted from April to November 2021 and led to major reductions in crop yields and food price inflation across the country. It was lifted amid the unrest. “There was no sense that there was consultation with agricultural experts, which was disastrous because a third of our economy depends on agriculture,” Kadirgamar adds.
Why Wickeremesinghe declared a state of emergency
Wickremesinghe declared a state of emergency Monday while serving as interim president in response to mounting protests. “It is expedient, so to do, in the interests of public security, the protection of public order and the maintenance of supplies and services essential to the life of the community,” a government notice said. But further details around what the state of emergency entails or how long it will last have not been made public, according to media reports. Prior and recent emergency laws have allowed Sri Lankan leaders to change laws, seize property and detain individuals without due process.
Protesters were irked by the invocation of emergency law. “We have been protesting peacefully for 100 days but there was no state of emergency. Then why now?” Rev. Fr. Jeewantha Peiris, a protest leader, told Al Jazeera on Monday.
Sri Lankan leaders have declared a state of emergency multiple times since April. “That’s a big worry. There is this default of going to emergency rule in Sri Lanka,” Fonseka says. “Emergency rule provides broad powers, removes certain checks in terms of rights and Sri Lanka has a history of using emergency rule to crack down on dissent.”
The Rajapaksa family, who Wickeremesinghe is close to, is known for cracking down on the Tamil Tigers that brought an end to the 1983-2009 civil war. (The Tamil Tigers had tried and failed in their attempts to create a separate state for Sri Lanka’s ethnic Tamil minority, who are mainly Hindu, in the north of the country.) Doing so earned the Rajapaksa family—part of the Sinhalese Buddhist majority—a reputation among nationalist Sri Lankans as war heroes. Although Mahinda’s presidency ended in 2014, the family returned to power through Gotabaya in 2019 after ISIS-inspired terror attacks at several churches and luxury hotels during Easter killed more than 250 people in Colombo. “(The attacks) gave them the huge boost to say: look, we’re the ones who fought terrorism; you guys threw us out and now look where we are,” Kadirgamar says.
Can stability be restored?
Protesters are seemingly as opposed to Wickremesinghe as they were to Rajapaksa. A key demand of the demonstrators has been to abolish the office of the executive, which includes both Sri Lanka’s president and prime minister, in order to make way for an interim government for up to one year to help resuscitate the economy.
Wickremesinghe said Monday that Sri Lanka had almost finalized an agreement with the IMF for economic assistance. But that assistance could come with strings attached that are painful to ordinary Sri Lankans, including cuts to the public sector that employs around 1.5 of Sri Lanka’s 22 million people, and floating the rupee, which could drastically increase the costs of imports.
Analysts tell TIME that authorities will have to think carefully about such trade-offs and other potential measures, including austerity, as they could further provoke and prolong protests. “For the next year, it really has to be about bringing about some amount of political and economic stability,” says Kadirgamar.
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