There are few who have been stalwarts of Sri Lankan politics in the last half-century quite like the man often referred to as “the fox”.
Ranil Wickremesinghe, 73, who gained his nickname for his apparently wily ability to repeatedly resurrect his political career, has been prime minister six times since he first entered politics in 1977, though he has famously never completed a term.
He had also made several failed bids at the presidency. But finally, on Wednesday, after claiming victory in the parliamentary secret ballot, Wickremesinghe achieved what had appeared to be a lifelong political ambition: he took executive office, replacing the ousted president Gotabaya Rajapaksa.
A lawyer by profession, his first ascension to the role of PM came in 1993 after the assassination of the then president Ranasinghe Premadasa. But, in what would become a running theme during his career, his term did not last long.
Over his various terms in office, both as prime minister and opposition leader, Wickremesinghe became known for being economically capable and a pro-western reformer, particularly for his role steering the country out of a recession in 2001, and he had a strong voter base among the urban middle classes.
Yet despite his insistence that he was a “clean” politician, he was not untouched by corruption allegations, and was accused in being involved in an insider trading scam at the central bank. He always maintained his innocence.
After he became prime minister in 2015, Wickremesinghe was also accused of protecting the Rajapaksa family – who were political opponents but with whom he had close personal ties for years– from facing prosecution over alleged corruption and human rights abuses. While investigations were initiated against the family, they were stalled and ultimately came to nothing.
By the time Wickremesinghe had resigned as prime minister in 2019, there was mass public disenchantment with him, while his party, the once dominant United National Party (UNP) had fractured after a group of MPs broke away and formed a new opposition. He barely gained any votes in the 2020 parliamentary elections and he had to enter parliament as an MP through a list system for his party, the sole parliamentary representative for his once powerful UNP.
But it was in May this year that Wickremesinghe was brought back in from political near-obsolescence to be Sri Lanka’s caretaker president, as the country grappled through its worst economic crisis since independence.
He took on the post at the special request of embattled president and longtime friend Rajapaksa, who was facing an ongoing political crisis including mass protests demanding he resign.Sri Lanka unrest: how the week unfolded – video report
In the space of just a few weeks, Rajapaksa had been forced to dissolve his cabinet twice and after his older brother Mahinda, who was prime minister, resigned, the president was desperately looking for a replacement after opposition leaders rejected the post.
Wickremesinghe was pitched to the public as a capable, experienced pair of hands, who could help the country navigate this severe financial crisis and negotiate with international organisations including the International Monetary Fund. But among protesters who had been calling for president Rajapaksa to go, Wickremesinghe’s decision to accept the role was seen as a betrayal of the people’s movement, and he was instead accused of propping up and protecting the Rajapaksa family as he had done for decades.
As resentment towards president Rajapaksa grew over recent weeks, anger began to be directed at Wickremesinghe too. Calls began to mount for him to resign, and on the night of 9 July when protesters stormed the presidential palace and offices, the prime minister’s official residence was also occupied and Wickremesinghe’s private home burned to the ground. On 13 July, just as president Rajapaksa was due to step down, protesters then occupied Wickremesinghe’s official offices to make clear they also wanted him out.
Since president Rajapaksa stepped down on Friday, the rallying cry of protesters has turned to “Ranil go home” after he temporarily took over the role . Ahead of the presidential ballot, anti-Wickremesinghe demonstrations led by students and protest groups filled the streets and as news of his victory broke, many erupted in anger.
Yet many fear there will be further unrest on the streets now he has been chosen as Sri Lanka’s next president, particularly as he had appeared to pledge to crack down on the protesters, who he has referred to as “fascists” and “extremists”.
“Ranil Wickremesinghe should also step down because he came in defence of this corrupt system and he has failed five times before as prime minister,” said Father Jeevantha Peiris, a Catholic priest who has been a protest leader. “As citizens we don’t accept him, we don’t need another corrupt leader.” (Guardian)