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Explained: Who is Ranil Wickremesinghe, old warhorse with a (tough) shot at making history as Sri Lanka’s President?

The five-time PM inspires more confidence in western capitals and in India than many other Sri Lankan politicians. But he will first need to convince his people that he is not a Rajapaksa proxy.

In this photograph provided by the Sri Lankan President's Office, Ranil Wickremesinghe takes oath as the interim President in Colombo, Sri Lanka, on July 15. (Photo: (Sri Lankan President's Office via AP)

From presiding over the remains of the United National Party (UNP) after a stunning election defeat in which it failed to win a single seat to becoming President of his country, Ranil Wickremesinghe’s fortunes have changed dramatically in this history-making year in Sri Lanka.

The President of Sri Lanka

Wickremesinghe was elected by the Sri Lankan Parliament with 132 votes (in a House of 225) — and as per the Constitution, he will serve the remainder of his predecessor Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s term that began in November 2019.

Wickremesinghe, who was a nominated parliamentarian from the UNP and had no other party colleagues in Parliament — the UNP did not win any seats in the 2019 parliamentary election, and Wickremesinghe himself lost his Colombo seat — was dependent mainly on the votes of the Rajapaksa party, the Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP).

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As it was a secret ballot, it is unclear if all SLPP members voted for him (rival candidate Dallas Alahapperuma was also from the SLPP) — and whether he also got the votes of others, including MPs from Sajith Premadasa’s Samagi Jana Balwegaya (SJB), which was formed by those who left the UNP after being disenchanted by Wickremesinghe’s leadership.

Bankrupt nation, angry people

As President, Wickremesinghe has his task cut out. He is taking charge at a time when the country, in his own words, is “bankrupt”. It has no foreign reserves to buy fuel, food commodities, or medicine. Nearly 7 million Sri Lankans are facing starvation, according to the World Food Programme.

Schools are shut as a fuel-saving measure, and children could be set back several years due to under-nourishment and the closure of schools, which has come after a similar disruption in education due to the coronavirus pandemic.

As Prime Minister in the Gotabaya Rajapaksa presidency, he was already in negotiations with the IMF for a bailout. While his continuance in a higher office may be an advantage internationally, on the Sri Lankan street, Wickremesinghe’s election has been received with disappointment — he is seen as a Rajapaksa proxy who will do everything to protect the family, and perhaps even enable Gotabaya’s return to the country.

Old warhorse of politicians’ stock

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Wickremesinghe comes from a storied political family. His father was a newspaper baron, the owner of the present day Lake House group of papers, which was nationalised by Prime Minister Sirima Bandaranaike in the 1970s. His uncle was J R Jayewardene, who brought in the executive presidency system through a new Constitution in 1978. The UNP is often referred to as the “Uncle Nephew Party”.

Ranil has contested the direct presidential election twice, and has lost both times. In 1998 , he lost to Chandrika Kumaratunga, and in 2005 to Mahinda Rajapaksa. He did not contest the 2010, the 2015, or the 2019 presidential elections.

The first two times, the UNP backed a common opposition candidate, and in 2019, Ranil agreed to put up Sajith Premadasa from his party in an attempt to quell the rebellion within.

Recent history of ups and downs

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In 2015, after the victory of the common opposition candidate, the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) rebel Maithripala Sirisena, Ranil became the Prime Minister — and the two leaders tried to run a cohabitation government that proved to be a complete failure. He was sacked by President Sirisena, but won the office back by mounting a legal challenge to his dismissal.

His reinstatement did not improve the cold war between him and the President. Their inability to work together was one of the factors that led to the failure to prevent the 2019 Easter attacks.

Gotabaya was elected President later that year, and his brother Mahinda swept the parliamentary elections in 2020 with the SLPP.

In his mind, a man of destiny

In all, Wickremesinghe has been Prime Minister five times, never completing a term even once, starting with a one year stint in 1993-94 during the D B Wijetunga presidency to his last term which started on May 12 and ended with his election on Wednesday as President.

Wickremesinghe had once believed he would go down in history as the leader who ended the country’s civil war. The UNP’s urban constituencies were deeply unhappy with how the war was affecting the economy. When he became Prime Minister at the end of 2001, Sri Lanka had experienced negative growth of 1.4 per cent. Having determined correctly that LTTE was a war machine, Wickremesinghe was determined to break it by ushering in peace.

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As a first step, he signed off on a Norway-brokered ceasefire with the LTTE supremo Velupillai Prabhakaran ( the two did not come face to face for this), and was prepared to put the Tigers in charge of an interim administration in the North and East. The ceasefire did bring in foreign financial inflows.

But his ambitious plans were cut short when Kumaratunga, unhappy with the terms of the ceasefire and at being kept out, exercised her powers as President and sacked him in 2004, before any of his plans came to fruition. It would be the brothers Rakjapaksa who would bring an end to the civil war, through an all out military campaign against the LTTE.

One more chance — a moonshot

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Now, destiny has handed Wickremesinghe one more chance to prove his credentials, and to go down in history as the President who led Sri Lanka to economic recovery.

He does inspire more confidence in western capitals and in India than many other Sri Lankan politicians. But for the international community to help Sri Lanka, he will need to restore political stability. And for that, he will first need to convince the people of Sri Lanka that he is no proxy of the brothers Rajapaksa.

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It is public knowledge that Wickremesinghe went slow on investigations against the Rajapaksas when he was Prime Minister from 2015-19. If he continues to be seen as a friend of the Rajapaksas, the Aragalaya — “struggle” — of the people is unlikely to end.

First published on: 20-07-2022 at 03:47:59 pm
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