Neither North Nor South, Ranil At Home With The Global Right
By Rajan Philips –
The proceedings of the mutual admiration society of the global right do not usually make global media headlines, and they will hardly be echoed in Sri Lanka. There is a difference this year, at least for Sri Lankan politics. The International Democratic Union (IDU), an umbrella organization for the world’s centre-right as well as far-right political parties, had its 40th anniversary in London on June 20-21. President Ranil Wickremesinghe attended the London IDU event on his way to Paris for the global debt summit convened by French President Emmanuel Macron. The President’s London stopover may have gone unnoticed were it not for his soulmate chat with the current IDU Chairperson, Stephen Harper, former Canadian Prime Minister and an arch conservative.
In the course of their conversation, the transcript of which has been released by the PMD in Colombo, President Wickremesinghe made some surprising revelations about the last moments of the Gotabaya Rajapaksa presidency and the early moments of his own. According to the President, there was opposition by political leaders to him being sworn in as President, and suggestion that the Speaker of Parliament should instead be selected as interim President.
Mr. Wickremesinghe gave no indication if there was any external pressure from other country or countries, but he chose to ignore the opposition and go ahead with the succession. He went on to reveal that he avoided being sworn in any state building or premises and chose a neighbourhood Buddhist Temple for the occasion and got the Chief Justice to go to the temple and administer the oath of office.
While we must not try to read too much into the President’s London revelations, we cannot overlook the fact that he chose to reveal these details in London without ever having talked about them at home. It was as if the President was seeking external validation to compensate for political insecurity at home. The revelations say a great deal about Ranil Wickremesinghe’s political leanings and sympathies as well as his craving for affiliations with the global right.
The International Democratic Union
The International Democratic Union is the mutual admiration society of the Global Right that was created in 1983 at the height of the Reagan-Thatcher era in Western politics. The membership includes centre-right and rightwing parties, but the organization leans far more right than centre-right. The founding members were 19 conservative parties, 18 of whom were from the West and one from Japan. Prominent signatories included Margaret Thatcher, Helmet Kohl and Jacques Chirac. The main sponsors were Germany’s Konrad Adenauer Foundation and then US Vice President George H.W. Bush.
Today there are 84 members representing conservative parties from the Global South. Members from South Asia include the Bangladesh Nationalist Party, India’s Bharatiya Janata Party, the Maldivian Democratic Party, and Sri Lanka’s United National Party. The BNP is in opposition, the BJP and MDP are in government, and the UNP is listed in the IDU website as an alliance with one member out of 225 in parliament, not to mention the Executive President. I do not know when the UNP became a member of the IDU, but I do know that no other UNP leader has invested so much time and travel on the IDU as Ranil Wickremesinghe.
Stephen Harper became Chairperson of the Union in 2018 after his electoral defeat in 2015 and retirement from national politics. In October 2018, when Maithripala Sirisena created a home-made constitutional crisis and fired Ranil Wickremesinghe as Prime Minister, Harper as Chairperson of the IDU released a statement denouncing Sirisena’s unconstitutional misadventure and expressing solidarity with then Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe. Five years later, Ranil Wickremesinghe has become Sri Lanka’s first unelected President and had the occasion to recount to Stephen Harper in London the circumstances surrounding his sudden ascent to power after a crushing defeat at the hustings.
Stephen Harper is a dyed-in-the-wool conservative who took the Progressive Conservative Party of Canada that had traditionally been to the left of the Democratic Party in the US, all the way to the right of the US Republican Party. In international relations, he has been more hawkish than Thatcher and broke with Canada’s long foreign policy tradition of neutral middle power diplomacy observed by both Liberal and Conservative Prime Ministers. In internal Canadian politics, Harper used his conservative ideology to build support for his Party among immigrants from non-western countries by finding common cause with the inherently conservative and rightwing biases among swaths of the immigrant populations regardless of their racial or spatial origins.
After the 40th anniversary event in London, Mr. Harper is on a mission to strengthen links between the West’s rightwing parties. From London, he travelled to Budapest to meet with Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, and to Rome to meet with Italian Prime Minister Georgia Meloni. He is apparently trying to forge stronger links between Hungary’s governing Fidesz Party, the Brothers of Italy party, and the Conservative Party of Canada that is now in opposition.
Mr. Harper has retired from electoral politics and his efforts to establish transatlantic ties between rightwing parties will likely be ignored in Europe at best, and may prove to be electorally embarrassing for the Conservative Party in Canada, at worst. But what is best or worst for Sri Lanka in having a President who is a card carrying member of the Global Right? That is the question. But there is no one of consequence in the Opposition to pose this question vigorously and force the President to answer it.
In fairness, Ranil Wickremesinghe is not a rightwing ideologue in the same mould as Stephen Harper, probably because of Sri Lanka’s political traditions involving a politically strong Left, politically and electorally strong centre-Left, and an all-party commitment to social welfarism. Before he became caretaker President, Ranil Wickremesinghe presented himself as an advocate of the ‘social market economy’ – a concept that was developed in West Germany after World War II, as a middle-of-the-road alternative between free-market capitalism and socialism. There hasn’t been much talk about the social market economy after RW became caretaker President.
On the contrary, the President has been using code words to blame social welfarism and socialism. To wit, blaming past political leaders for avoiding hard decisions and implementing policies that were popular with the voters; and making foreign policy decisions for partisan political benefits rather than to support national economic interests. For whatever reason, Ranil Wickremesinghe is not prepared to use the word socialism hypocritically, the way JR Jayewardene did in choosing the long title for the country: The Democratic Socialist Republic of Sri Lanka.
On matters of real policy and initiatives, however, there is no daylight between the uncle and the nephew. Even on the question of changing the system of executive presidency, Mr. Wickremesinghe has walked backed on his earlier promises and by positioning himself as a candidate for the next presidential election he is effectively cementing forever the practice of electing the President directly by the people.
What is more, Mr. Wickremesinghe is not content with saving the economy and reaping the reward of an elected term as President. He wants to change the contours of politics – by passing baleful laws, imposing stringent regulations, cultivating security forces to put down protesters, and bending the government machinery and independent commissions (like the Election Commission) to do his bidding. Clever and proactive as these moves are, they are also indicative of the level of political insecurity the President harbours in spite of the near-monarchical powers that he effortlessly wields.
If the President were to take care of the economy equally apolitically the national goodwill for him will spillover beyond political bounds. He would be venerated as the best caretaker Head of State and Head of Government Sri Lanka ever had. But inasmuch as Mr. Wickremesinghe tries to secure an elected term as President as his political reward for taking care of the economy, he is not going to be able to cash all the goodwill he might garner in his economic portfolio into large enough votes to win a presidential election.
Most of all, the President has no coherent political platform, he does not have the support of a cohesive political alliance, and he does not have a committed political following in the country other than due respect and apolitical goodwill for his handling of the economic situation. Sadly for the country, all of the above shortcomings of President Wickremesinghe are mirrored by his opponents and detractors. Between the two (the President and his detractors) there is no prospect for a positively radical breakthrough for the country.