Ranil Wickremesinghe, 67, Prime Minister of Sri Lanka for a fourth term and leader of the United National Party (UNP), is the spearhead of a complex game-changing project where the stakes are extremely high. The project is to see through Parliament, and then through a referendum, a major constitutional change that will put an end to the system of an overbearing executive presidency and usher in a prime ministerial system — and, crucially, put in place an enduring devolution of power solution to the Tamil question . Mr. Wickremesinghe leads a national government made possible by a highly unusual compact between the two main rival parties in the political system — the UNP, the party with by far the largest numbers in Parliament, and a minority of Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) MPs who are with the Prime Minister’s political opponent-and-ally, President Maithripala Sirisena. While the leaders of the Tamil National Alliance (TNA) have taken a positive view of the constitutional change under way, the political forces of Sinhala ultra-nationalism are trying to rally round the former President, Mahinda Rajapaksa.
In a recent interview given to The Hindu at Temple Trees in Colombo, Sri Lanka’s assured and confident-sounding Prime Minister answered questions relating to these key issues.
Prime Minister, the overall political situation in Sri Lanka seems to have stabilised after the big change in 2015, the election of Maithripala Sirisena as President followed by your victory in the parliamentary elections. How do you see this process, which has seen improvement as well as complications?
With the parliamentary elections in August 2015 , we created the National Government. And we gave it a period for it to stabilise. I think that has taken place now. We also prepared a new policy framework. We had incurred a heavy national debt, there was adverse publicity for Sri Lanka, and human rights was a big issue — all those have been resolved.
I would say we have sort of created the stability and cleared the way. Now, next year is when we have to deliver on our promises, which will also help us to consolidate this arrangement. We have started the journey, it has been slow going. It would be, if the two major parties have to get together. It’s a tremendous task. Still haven’t got the two major parties to get together in India or anywhere else. But it has worked out well here. Now it is a question of delivery and consolidation. We are moving on different fronts. We are looking at reconciliation, looking at the crisis in the North — both the human problems and the economic problems, the development. The President is now focussing on the rural poor. We are discussing a new Constitution. I would say that the next two years are important for us to consolidate the gains we have made.
How is the economy doing? What has happened, is it a gain?
It is a gain. We have undertaken a macroeconomic stabilisation programme. And we are moving our revenue collection, which was about 10-11 per cent of GDP. Hopefully we will be at 15 per cent when our term is over and then we can move towards a higher level. Ours is also an exercise in how do you bring the black money in; and we are trying to phase out the long tax holidays that have been granted. We want to bring the budget deficit down to about 4 per cent by 2020 — and that’s the process. It’s now more a question of revenue collection and better management of the public funds.
We have strengthened Parliament — by allowing it to have the [sectoral] oversight committees; we have established the Public Finance Committee; we will bring legislation for the Parliamentary Budget Office; and the present J.R Jayewardene Centre may be used for parliamentary research, very much like the unit you have in New Delhi or the institute that is available in Islamabad.
What are the challenges on the economic front?
Growth. How do you go up to 7 per cent growth? Getting the investments in. Creating more employment. Increasing incomes and then reviving the rural economy. I’m confident we can do it the way we started off.
And the economic situation in the North?
The North is going to take a longer time. The war has destroyed the economy. So it will be a longer period but we have given special concessions for investment in the North — double the normal concessions we have given the rest of the country, incentives.
Can the arrangement you are involved in be called cohabitation — where one of the two main parties in the political system is divided and one of its groups has made common cause with the party that emerged victorious, or relatively victorious, in the parliamentary elections? What would you say about the chemistry between that section of the SLFP which is with the President, and your party?
It’s more than just the two main parties working together in government. We are also having an understanding with the Opposition — the TNA and the JVP [Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna] who supported President Maithripala Sirisena as the common candidate [in the presidential elections of January 2015]. They went separately for the parliamentary elections, the UNP had no separate deal with them. But they also were convinced. Even within the group of the UPFA [United People’s Freedom Alliance] that sits on the other side, I don’t think they want to go over the precipice. This whole new question of [SLFP dissidents] starting a separate party has been resisted by some of the members of the UPFA who are sitting in opposition. But it’s a new era. It’s not only the UNP and SLFP working together; we also work with the other parties.
We’ve made the whole Parliament into a government, because we have the oversight committees. And then you have a Cabinet. The exact executive policies will be looked at by the Cabinet but the oversight committees will look at implementation. It’s really becoming a two-tier government. The first oversight committees were in the U.S., with the American presidential system. Secondly, in Europe they’ve had the European Commission and the European Parliament. Now what we are experimenting with, the pilot project is having the oversight committees with a cabinet government, because the Prime Minister and the members of the Cabinet are also Members of Parliament. But the Ministers cannot be in the oversight committees; it’s generally backbenchers who chair them, both from the Government and the Opposition — it’s divided in a ratio amongst parties.
So the mechanisms for different parties getting together in a broad-based way in the political system are there and working quite well.
Yes, it’s working. Can be improved, but it’s working.
What is your perception of the rift within the SLFP — between the pro-Rajapaksa and pro-Sirisena groups? Does it affect the unity of the government you lead? Does the possibility of Mahinda Rajapaksa’s comeback concern you?
We have factored in that there is a group around Mahinda Rajapaksa who will sit in the opposition. But within our framework of all groups in Parliament working in the oversight committees, there is discussion. Secondly, within the SLFP also some of the leading members who are with Rajapaksa attend the central committee meeting of the SLFP. Mahinda Rajapaksa can’t afford to be out of the SLFP. He’ll lose his base and they can take disciplinary action.
In my view, as time goes on he will lose the base support he has, because times are changing and the younger voters are not with him. So if they miss out on the younger voters, there will be other parties who will try to cater to them. As our policies succeed, people will realise that Mahinda Rajapaksa was a failure. I can’t see a comeback by him, because when people make a change they never go back to the status quo. If they want to make another change, they will look at something new. But I don’t think that will happen because people like the idea of the two main parties working together. They want to see the delivery taking place, that’s what we are focussing on. Once the delivery is assured, it will cease to be a major problem. Till then you’ve got to live with a thorn on your side, and I think our political parties are capable of doing that.
You are remaking the Constitution — although it’s not by a Constituent Assembly but a Constitutional Assembly, and you are bound by the rules of the 1978 Constitution.
We are not in any way challenging the authority of Parliament. But we have set ourselves up as a committee of the whole of the Parliament, which focusses only on the Constitution. And there is a Steering Committee which will send in the interim reports. And the Assembly which will debate. So once we have a final draft, we will send it to be passed by the Constitutional Assembly and sent to Parliament.
How is that going, the time frame?
Well, the six sub-committee reports are out. The Steering Committee now has to deal with the important ones — the nature of the state, religion, the exercise of executive, legislative, and judicial power. Those are some of the items. And the replacement of the executive presidency… Those are the key ones being handled by the Steering Committee and once the debate on the six sub-committee reports is over in the first week of January , we will present the report of the Steering Committee to the Assembly. Then the real debate on the nature of the Constitution will begin. It has to go to Parliament, be passed by two-thirds of Parliament, and then finally a referendum.
It’s fairly fast-tracked?
It can be fast-tracked.
You have the numbers in Parliament?
We have the numbers in Parliament.
And you hope that those who have reservations or are opposing some of these changes…
I think some of them will come along.
So the stakes are very high.
Yes, the stakes are always high in Sri Lanka!
Is everyone agreed on doing away with the overbearing executive presidency?
Yes, they have agreed. We are giving three options — for how the Prime Ministerial system should function. [The first option is the pure Westminster system. The second is a system where the Prime Minister is elected directly. The third option would require political parties to declare their Prime Ministerial candidates before the elections. In all three options, the President would be a non-executive head of state.]
The attitude of the Tamil parties, the Tamil National Alliance seems to have been very constructive…
Yes, very constructive, I must say. They have been taking part, they are very, very positive. I was there in the group that worked up to 1987. But this is the first time we are trying to do a Constitution without any party having an overall majority, not to speak of a two-thirds majority. That is good because we are striving to find common ground.
Will there be a measure of agreement on devolution? You already have the 13th Amendment.
There will be a measure of agreement because we discussed the matter with the Chief Ministers. Seven Chief Ministers are from the UPFA. Eight actually, if you take Trincomalee also. The UNP sits in the opposition but we discussed with the Chief Ministers and with the leaders of the opposition and had separate sessions with the Governors. And there is a three-member sub-committee which we appointed to do an ad hoc report on the relationship between the Centre and the Provincial Councils.
What’s different this time in the negotiations on the Tamil question?
I think everyone accepts the need to resolve it. Part of it is outside, that’s the type of work we have to do on releasing land, helping people… On this question of the nature of the state I can’t find a major issue coming on that — we’ve got over a lot of the difficulties, there’s a little bit more to be done.
I suppose the challenge is to avoid veering in one direction or the other and finding a formulation to say that Sri Lanka must be united, it is one but...
People want that, yes.
Without getting trapped in terminology?
No. The Indian government has also said it must strengthen the 13th Amendment. Now actually we have got to deliver to the Tamil people and that’s not a matter of law.
Let’s look at the elephant in the room, the Opposition which is adopting a nationalistic position. We see this political trend in India, you have it here as well. The cry will go up that the nation is in danger, or there’s a danger of separatism, etc. Is such a scenario far-fetched?
We’re all patriots, we’re all nationalists. So we have no problem dealing with anyone who wants to raise that cry. They will find that people don’t accept it. What we will decide on the nature of the state and other issues will be acceptable to everyone. We are politicians.
As for the international demands [for an investigation into war crimes], they have been moderated or have quietened down?
Yes, we also co-sponsored the [ UNHRC] resolution . I can’t see a major hitch on that.
Obviously, it is desirable to have maximum support or unanimity for this process of changing the Constitution, making the changes you have referred to. Is that achievable?
Well, we are trying to get unanimity. Let’s see when the Steering Committee report is out.
Are you engaging in discussions with Mr. Rajapaksa and others?
We are trying to meet him next week, the Leader of the Opposition and I. [The meeting took place soon after the interview.] And with former President [Chandrika] Kumaratunga. We’ve already met with the President.
On the international front, starting with India…
Things have been working out well with India. We are looking at trying to get the Economic and Technological Cooperation Agreement (ETCA) through. There has been general goodwill on both sides. The fishing issue must be resolved.
Is it continuity or change in the Sri Lanka-India relationship? It has been quite good for a while.
The main outstanding issue with India is the fishermen’s issue, isn’t it?
Yes, it’s the fishermen’s issue. We should sort it out. We shouldn’t allow that issue to… My sympathies are with the northern fishermen who say, ‘now let us fish in our own waters.’
Which is now possible.
Which is now possible, and the pressure is going to come from the North.
Coming back to the ETCA with India — you wanted it signed by the end of 2016. How does it fit into your economic vision for the country? India seems to have indicated that the agreement can’t be signed until mid-2017. Have there been areas of substantive disagreement between Colombo and New Delhi in the negotiations?
There aren’t areas of substantive disagreement. I think they’re discussing it step by step. We would have liked it in 2016, but we can also still make room for it to be in 2017. But we would like it to take place in 2016-17, because the FTA [Free Trade Agreement] with China and the FTA with Singapore will both be signed in the early part of 2017. We will regain the facility of preferential exports to EU through the GSP Plus facility. We want the Indian agreement also quickly. Because, one, the Indian agreement paves the way for a tripartite [arrangement for trade and investment] by 2017 — Sri Lanka, India, and Singapore. The agreements we have between us mean that we are at the crucial entry points of the Bay of Bengal and we can work further on a closer economic union within the Bay of Bengal [region]. For that to succeed also, we require the agreement with India, because the five southern States [Tamil Nadu, Karnataka, Andhra Pradesh, Telangana, and Kerala] and Sri Lanka — the total GDP of such an economy is over $500 billion with the possibility of doubling to a trillion dollars within a decade or so. The potential is enormous, so with our agreements with Singapore and with China, on their ‘One Belt, One Road’ initiative, it is imperative that we sign the agreement with India as fast as possible.
If we can turn to some major developments in international relations…
We must look at the whole issue of international relations now after the referendum in the U.K. and the election of Donald Trump as the next President of the U.S. I think people have sent a message. I don’t think any of the countries want to give up the dominance that they have but there should be a rearranging of priorities, which also I think would require Asia — the Asian countries — to see how we can increase cooperation. After all, we are the next growth centre, next to the West.
Has Brexit adversely affected or benefitted Sri Lanka?
Not benefitted us. We are worried that if there is a downturn, it can affect some of our exports. Britain has to work out what they want — is it a hard or a soft exit, they are still not clear. Then, if they want to re-establish the economic relations within the Commonwealth, they’ll have to come up with some plan because there are so many players now, not only the U.K. And the bulk of the Commonwealth nations are around the Indian Ocean.
What do you expect for our region from President-elect Donald Trump when he takes over?
He’ll do a new approach. There will be a reorganising of priorities, but so far the names for the cabinet show that he has picked some good choices — they will be right-wing, but then he came on a right-wing populist agenda. So let’s see how it goes and what his style would be.
I don’t see the kind of perturbation there is in some other parts of the world, or even in the U.S., in India or Sri Lanka. Is it that you just accept it?
They have voted and we must fit into it. And we never had the TPP [Trans-Pacific Partnership]. The TPP really was against us. It left China out, it left India out, it left South Asia out, Indonesia didn’t get into it. I think in a way it doesn’t harm us at all and we can now work our own arrangements out. So first we feel as Asian countries that India, China, Japan must have some arrangement on economic cooperation within Asia. We have rivalries but we must work for that; there will be pressure for that. And once you get it going, you can see still that whatever problems there are in Japan or in the Chinese economy, it is still growing. India is growing at the fastest rate. Both the U.S. and the EU will have to deal with us. Australia wants to come in with Asia, it’s very clear, New Zealand, even the East African Coast must come into this. I think India has a lot of personal connections at that level.
Sri Lanka’s relations with China continue to be good?
Yes, it continues.
No change. We discussed, we had some outstanding matters. We stopped the port city to ensure that it was in conformity with the laws, it’s going on and we found that land was the best we could get to have our financial city. Hambantota — we have negotiated debt-to-equity swap and industrialisation. And then Singapore's Surbana Jurong is designing Trincomalee. But India has indicated that they want to be involved and that’s good by us. And maybe Japan. We have taken into account India’s security concerns, the fact that China wants to expand as an economic power — those are ones that we can balance and Japan has been a steadfast supporter of Sri Lanka.
There have been some controversies about the Central Bank of Sri Lanka. Are you over that?
I am the one who first initiated an internal inquiry; they gave the report; I gave it to the Parliament. And even in the new Parliament, I allowed the Committee on Public Enterprises to go ahead. The chairman was a member of the JVP — we all supported him, still support him. And they have made their recommendations; it’s unanimous, the recommendations for further inquiry. There are different views on the rationale or the reasoning, but it shows the parliamentary system is working. And I have submitted all the papers to the Attorney General, so that’s no longer within my purview.
To sum up, would you say the overall situation is markedly different from what it was before the presidential and parliamentary elections of 2015?
Certainly different, more hopeful.
You have been in government for a very long time, in politics, in the opposition. Is this situation qualitatively new ?
After 1977, yes, it’s qualitatively new and the fact is that most of the countries in Asia are also thinking that way. Starting in 1977, we were the exception and it took some time. China and India came along. We are also looking at new arrangements, we are in talks with India about how we can strengthen economic cooperation in the Bay of Bengal. I mean the population around the Bay of Bengal — the Indian States around it, the hinterland, plus the others — it’s twice the population of the European Union. There’s much more scope for growth.
You have thought about this for some time.
Yes, that’s why I want the ETCA also to come on because, on the one hand, we can have ETCA and the Singapore FTA with us. Secondly, the five southern States and Sri Lanka can make a very powerful combination.