ECONOMYNEXT – Sri Lanka’s newly sworn in Acting President Ranil Wickremesinghe plans to facilitate a full restoration of the 19th amendment to the constitution and establish law and order in the face of what he calls an emerging fascist threat before parliament elects the next president.
In a recorded statement released shortly after his swearing in on Friday July 15, Wickremesinghe called for unity, consensus and prioritising the ongoing economic crisis over party politics.
“People expect a change in the political system. An important part of this change is restoring the 19th amendment fully. I have started the initial process of presenting a draft bill to parliament for this purpose.
“I will set the stage in this brief period for the new president elected next week to enact the 19th amendment,” he said.
Wickremesinghe did not indicate whether this meant the planned 22nd amendment will be amendment. The 19th amendment, originally enacted under his premiership in the Yahapalana government, somewhat significantly clipped the wings of Sri Lanka’s all-powerful executive presidency and strengthened parliament. The 20th amendment brought under former President Gotabaya Rajapaksa went beyond bringing back these powers, resulting in a weakened parliament.
The acting president said he will take immediate steps to establish law and order in the country. He had previously blamed “fascist” elements in Sri Lanka’s youth-led protest movement for inciting and causing violence. Protestors had been demanding the resignation of ex-President Rajapaksa since March, over his role in Sri Lanka’s worst economic crisis since Independence. Since some weeks into his appointment as prime minister, many of the protestor groups, collectively known as the aragalaya (or struggle), have been demanding Wickremesinghe’s resignation too. His private residence was burn down on July 09.
“I will take immediate steps to establish law and order in the country. I 100 percent accept the right to peaceful protest. But there are those trying to engage in sabotage. It has also been reported that some groups are trying to influence MPs in next week’s vote in parliament.
“We will create the space for MPs to independently express their views. They will be provided full security. We will not allow any group to destroy parliamentary democracy under any circumstance,” he said.
Sri Lanka’s parliament is expected to elect a new president from among its membership on July 20.
“There are groups that try to undermine democracy and set the country ablaze through fascist means. It’s groups like this that stole two weapons with ammunition from the army stationed near parliament. Twenty-four troops have been injured, two of them severely.
“I don’t believe real aragalya would do that. But there is a big difference between aragala protestors and rioters. Rioters will be dealt with under the law,” warned Wickremesinghe.
The acting president said those who have been with the argalaya from the start have also expressed their opposition to the violent elements.
“Together with them, we’re committed to upholding law and order and democracy. I’m committed to protecting the constitution, and I will never allow or abet anything that goes against the constitution. Nor will I work outside the constitution.
“A breakdown in law and order will impact the economy. Fuel, power and water supply and food supply can crumble,” he added.
Sri Lanka’s economic crisis is worsening, with shortages in fuel and other essentials as well as daily power outages have critically disrupted economic activity and heaped untold hardships on the public. Wickremesinghe made no mention of ongoing negotiations with the International Monetary Fund (IMF).
Meanwhile, protestors are threatening to up the ante in their demand for “Ranil go home”. Wickremesinghe believes that rogue elements within the aragalaya – whom he describes as fascists – are threatening to destabilise the country before the economy could recover. He has appointed a committee comprising military top brass to contain the situation.
“They have total freedom to take legal action with no political interference,” he said.
Wickremesinghe reiterated a call for an all-party government and urged all parties represented in parliament to arrive at a consensus on the matter as soon as possible.
“We must set aside party and political differences and unite for the country. So put your personal ambitions aside. Give priority to the needs of the country. Think more about protecting the country than about protecting individuals,” he said.
Who will be Sri Lanka’s ninth president is anybody’s guess. At this point, various contenders have expressed interest, opposition leader Sajith Premadasa among them. It may well end up being Wickremesinghe himself if the ruling Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP), which stall holds a majority in parliament, decides to vote for him come July 20.
“First we need a country to do politics. So I ask all political parties and groups to act with the country and the people in mind. First, let’s save the country and the people from this crisis situation. After that, we can get into party politics,” he said.
Wickremesinghe also announced two surprise decisions that have little to do with the present crisis: prohibiting the use of the words ‘his excellency’ when referring to the president and abolishing the presidential flag.
“A country only needs one flag; just the national flag. We must go forward under one flag,” he said.
He urged all parties and citizens to think deeply and impartially about the current crisis.
“The stage has been set for the country to embark on a new journey with a fresh approach. There is more space now for creating a society free of corruption and for uplifting our motherland. It is our duty to make the most of that,” he said.
“As citizens, let’s all be party to this,” he added. (Colombo/Jul15/2022)