Ranil Wickremesinghe: From six-time prime minister to new president of Sri Lanka – Firstpost
Ranil Wickremesinghe received overwhelming support from lawmakers to become the new president of Sri Lanka until 2024. Will the veteran leader help steer the island nation out of its worst economic crisis?
In 2019, Ranil Wickremesinghe had famously said in an interview after he had resigned from the post of prime minister, “Politics is more than chess. It is teamwork like cricket. You must have the stamina for a marathon. You must remember it is a hard game like rugby and it is a blood sport like boxing.”
His words ring true today after he became president and replaced Gotabaya Rajapaksa, who fled the crisis-wracked country and resigned last week.
Official results show that Wickremesinghe polled 134 votes in a three-cornered parliamentary vote, with his main opponent Dullas Alahapperuma getting 82 and leftist Anura Dissanayake just three -- giving him an absolute majority on first preferences.
The 73-year-old leader has long held aspirations to be the president of Sri Lanka, but hasn’t been able to realise them till date. In the past, he has lost a presidential election, but has occupied the prime minister’s position five times — though never once completing a full term in office.
Shortly after winning, Wickremesinghe said, “I need not tell you the status our country is in. Now that the election is over we have to end this division. We had 48 hours to stay divided but from now on I am ready to have a dialog with you,” asking other political parties to work with him.
Even as protesters continue to demand for his ouster, here’s a look at Wickremesinghe’s life and political career, which has earned him the title of ‘eighth wonder of the world’ in Sri Lankan politics.
The head of United National Party (UNP), Sri Lanka’s oldest political party, Ranil comes from an elite family. His maternal grandfather DR Wijewardena published a series of newspapers supporting the independence movement. His paternal grandfather, CG Wickremesinghe, was the most senior Sri Lankan colonial government servant.
The son of Sri Lanka’s media baron Esmond Wickremesinghe, Ranil is also the nephew of Junius Jayawardene or JR, considered the most powerful Sri Lankan President to date.
A former lawyer, he made the political plunge in 1977, but was once quoted as telling AFP that he would have been a journalist if the government of the day had not nationalised his family’s newspaper business in 1973.
In 1993, he was appointed premier after the assassination of then-president Ranasinghe Premadasa, who was killed in a bomb attack by Tamil Tiger guerrillas during Sri Lanka’s decades-long civil war.
Wickremesinghe’s first term in office lasted little more than a year.
He then faced defeat at the hand of late-Prime Minister Bandaranaike’s daughter Chandrika Bandaranaike. After the defeat, Wickremesinghe became the leader of the opposition until he made a comeback as prime minister under the presidency of Bandaranaike in 2001.
During his first tenure, he was applauded for his sound economic plans that steered the country out of recession.
However, his ties with Chandrika remained fraught and he was told of his dismissal while he was in a meeting with United States president George W Bush at the White House in 2003.
During his tenure, he also began peace talks with the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), even offering a power-sharing deal. Both Chandrika and Mahinda Rajapaksa had accused him of being too lenient with LTTE and of offering them too many concessions.
Wickremesinghe contested the presidency in 2005 but narrowly lost to Mahinda Rajapaksa, with a deficit of approximately 150,000 votes. It was reported that Tamil rebels forcibly prevented voting from taking place in the Northern and Eastern provinces where Wickremesinghe was expected to score heavily.
His electoral losses in the years running until 2015 prompted even his own supporters to dub him a “record loser”.
However, in 2015, he threw up a surprise when he secretly joined hands with his rival Chandrika and ousted Rajapaksa. Their candidate, Maithripala Sirisena, shocked the Rajapaksa clan and became the new president and Wickremesinghe became the new prime minister.
Later that year, his ‘clean image’ was sullied when a scandal involving the central bank governor, Arjuna Mahendra came to light. Mahendra was considered a close confidante of Wickremesinghe.
The scam cost Wickremesinghe the position of prime minister when Sirisena dismissed him in 2018 and installed Mahinda as prime minister. This move not only was a shock, but was also decried by critics as a constitutional coup.
The Supreme Court of the country overturned the development and Wickremesinghe once again became the prime minister.
In 2020, the UNP head received his worst political drubbing — he not only lost the Parliament election, but his party was also routed at the hands of Mahinda Rajapaksa by failing to secure even one of the 225 seats.
According to a News18 report, the loss was so painful to Wickremesinghe that he did not even come out of his house for a few days after the rout. Everyone in Sri Lanka thought it was the end and his own party demanded he should step aside to hand over the baton to someone younger.
In 2021, when everyone had written him off, he returned to Parliament where he said, “I am happy to be able to come to Parliament and resume my parliamentary political life.”
Sixth time’s the charm
In May, President Gotabaya Rajapaksa appointed Wickremesinghe as prime minister as the country erupted in chaos and residents demanded for the ouster of the Rajapaksa family from power.
The appointment of Wickremesinghe came shortly after Gotabaya’s brother, Mahinda, resigned as the prime minister.
Political pundits and analysts believed that his status as a pro-West, free-market reformist could smooth bailout negotiations with the International Monetary Fund and foreign creditors.
His time in office has been difficult — he now also faces the wrath of the people of Sri Lanka after the country’s embattled president fled overseas — first to Maldives and now reportedly to Singapore.
Last week, when he transitioned to acting president, protesters stormed his office, shouting “Go home Ranil, Go home Gota”.
Will Wickremesinghe be able to pull out Sri Lanka out of this chaos or will he go the Rajapaksa way?
With inputs from agencies
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