Youn 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 served as an interim president starting July 15. His predecessor, President Gotabaya Rajapaksa was the first leader from Sri Lanka to leave the country. Then he resigned. Protesters stormed Rajapaksa’s presidential palace and demanded his resignation on July 9. This was after he had fled Sri Lanka on July 14. Although Wickremesinghe is backed by the country’s ruling coalition led by the right-wing 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. He is however deeply disliked by the Sri Lankan population. “[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. Wickremesinghe will have to restore economic and political stability, if he holds on to power. “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.
What is the reason former President Gotabaya Rajapaksa fled the country?
After growing protests demanding his departure, Rajapaksa left the country. Demonstrators had been protesting for over 100 days against the economic crisis and stormed into the building 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 became President in 2019, years after Mahinda had held that same office from 2005 to 2014. Gotabaya elected Mahinda to the role of Prime Minister after his election. However, he resigned as this year’s prime minister in May, experts believe in an attempt to quell protests which had begun 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]We are asking ourselves: “Why is this happening?” 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. Experts claim that Sri Lanka’s government was aware of the dire state of the country by March 2020. “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.
To deal with the declining tourism industry, the central banking began printing money more frequently, which led to record-setting inflation.
In an attempt to cut costs and encourage organic farming in the United States, the government decided to ban chemical fertilizers. This was widely criticised. It was in effect from April 2021 to November 2021. This ban led to significant reductions in yields and increased food inflation throughout the country. The unrest led to its lifting. “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.
In April, Sri Lanka became the first country in history to default on its debt.
Wickeremesinghe declares a state emergency
In response to the mounting protests, Wickremesinghe declared an emergency on Monday. “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 issued said. Media reports do not provide further information about what the state emergency is or for how long. Recent and prior emergency laws allowed Sri Lankan leaders the ability to alter laws, take property, and hold people without due process.
The invocation of emergency laws was a resounding success with protesters. “We have been protesting peacefully for 100 days but there was no state of emergency. Then why now?” Rev. Al Jazeera heard Monday from Father Jeewantha, a leading protest leader.
Multiple times, Sri Lankan leaders declare a state emergency 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.”
Wickeremesinghe is very close to Rajapaksa, who is famous for crackingdown on Tamil Tigers and bringing an end to civil wars between 1983-1909. (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.
What can be done to restore stability?
The protesters seem to be just as hostile to Wickremesinghe than they are 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 stated Monday that Sri Lanka was close to signing an agreement for financial assistance with the International Monetary Fund. But that assistance could come attached with strings 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.
TIME has been told by analysts that the authorities must think about trade-offs as well as other possible measures such austerity. They could provoke further protests or prolong them. “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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