Simon Fraser & Robert Plummer & George Wright
London, August 1, 2022
Ranil Wickremesinghe has been promoted from being Sri Lanka’s Prime Minister to its new President within a matter of days. He now has the job he has long coveted – but the challenges he faces are monumental.
His predecessor, Gotabaya Rajapaksa, fled the country and resigned following months of mass protests over the island’s economic crisis.
Mr Wickremesinghe faces the immediate task of trying to lead Sri Lanka out of economic collapse and restore public order.
Unity in doubt
“Our divisions are now over,” he told Parliament in a short acceptance speech after being elected by his fellow MPs and urged his opponents to work with him for the good of the country.
But many doubt Sri Lanka can unite under Mr Wickremesinghe and his opponents question his mandate to serve out the current term before elections in late 2024, even though the constitutional procedure has been followed. He is the sole MP of the party he leads and he owes his election to top office to members of the ruling SLPP party – led by the Rajapaksas.
The new President’s deep unpopularity could trigger more unrest at a time when Sri Lanka needs political stability so it can resume stalled negotiations with the International Monetary Fund (IMF) for a bailout package.
Some protest organisers have vowed to continue demonstrating, with many pointing out his close links with the Rajapaksa family.
“He came into power saying that he will hold everyone accountable, the Rajapaksas even, but he did nothing. It is absurd to think that people are going to trust him again,” Anjalee Wanduragala, a University student said.
About Ranil Wickremesinghe
Mr Wickremesinghe, a senior MP and leader of the United National Party (UNP) which once ruled Sri Lanka, has run twice for President and lost – in 1999 and 2005.
Around the turn of the century, he was a genuine contender to lead the country, but his star subsequently waned.
He has been Prime Minister six times but has never seen out a full term. His latest Prime Ministerial stint began as recently as May when he was named to the post in an ultimately unsuccessful attempt by Mr Rajapaksa to cling to office.
Mr Wickremesinghe became Acting President on 13 July when Mr Rajapaksa fled. But his new role got off to an inauspicious start when he declared a nationwide state of emergency, only to have it defied by thousands of protesters who stormed his office in the capital, Colombo.
In a TV statement, he denounced the demonstrators as “fascists.”
But they want him out of power as well. His private residence was set ablaze during unrest a few days earlier. He was not at home at the time.
Protests flared up in Colombo in early April. Since then, they have grown in size and spread across the country.
For months, people have been struggling with daily power cuts and shortages of basics such as fuel, food and medicines.
The country’s foreign currency reserves have virtually run dry, meaning it does not have enough funds available to buy goods from other countries.
Resentment at these growing hardships boiled over, forcing Gotabaya Rajapaksa out of office – and Mr Wickremesinghe will be aware the same fate could await him.
A lawyer by profession, he comes from an affluent family of politicians and businessmen.
He was first elected to Parliament in 1977 and quickly moved up the party ladder after Ranasinghe Premadasa was elected President in 1989. He first served as Prime Minister from 1993 to 1994.
In 1994, he became leader of the UNP when Gamini Dissanayake was killed by suspected rebels of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam.
He himself narrowly escaped an assassination attempt when a bomb went off at a meeting he was addressing in the town of Eppawala.
Mr Wickremesinghe improved his Party’s image by appointing a Disciplinary Commission to get rid of corrupt party members.
He also tried to change his image with various haircuts to give himself a more appealing look and he tried to broaden the UNP’s public support by touring villages.
He was Prime Minister during the deadly Easter Sunday bombings in 2019, which killed at least 250 people. He told the BBC he had been “out of the loop” when it came to intelligence warnings ahead of the attacks.
In the last election, his UNP was almost wiped out, managing to scrape together just one Parliamentary seat, leaving him its sole representative in Parliament and fuelling his opponents’ claims that he lacks legitimacy for office.
One major reason people are angry at Mr Wickremesinghe has been his perceived closeness to the Rajapaksa family. Many people believe he helped shield them when they lost power in 2015.
In an effort to shore up his authority when he was named acting president, Mr Wickremesinghe instructed a new committee headed by the military and police chiefs to “do what is necessary” to restore order.
There are fears that he could order security forces to come down hard on protesters if they demonstrate against him, particularly as the financial pain shows no sign of easing soon.
The economic crisis was “going to get worse before it gets better,” he told the BBC in May.
But the turmoil is now so great that it is unclear what measures will be equal to the task – or whether Mr Wickremesinghe is the man to do it.