The unpopular Sri Lankan president consolidates his power after his victory
COLOMBO, Sri Lanka (AP) — Sri Lanka’s six-time prime minister, President Ranil Wickremesinghe has long aspired to the pinnacle of power, enduring setback after setback but always managing to recover from seemingly impossible defeats.
He has moved quickly to shore up his position since lawmakers elected him this week to complete the term of his predecessor, ousted President Gotabaya Rajapaksa. In the early hours of Friday, army troops and police forcibly emptied the capital’s main protest site of protesters who had occupied it for months angered by the country’s economic collapse.
On Friday, he appointed a classmate and ally of Rajapaksa, Dinesh Gunawardena, to be his prime minister and partner in rescuing the country from its predicament. The question is whether they can muster the political clout and public support to get the job done.
READ MORE: Sri Lankan lawmakers elect unpopular prime minister as new president
Even his detractors respect Wickremesinghe for his perseverance.
“If you’re broke and think you can’t get what you want, just look at a picture of Ranil Wickremesinghe,” said lawmaker Udaya Gammanpila, who backed Wickremesinghe’s main rival in the presidential vote.
Wickremesinghe is a divisive figure, unpopular among Sri Lankans who are fed up with shortages of food, fuel and medicine. Last week, protesters set fire to his private residence.
He’s as skilled as anyone after nearly half a century in politics, but it’s not clear that the tricks that have kept him at the helm of his party for most of that time will be enough to ride out a surge. of public antagonism. Few see Wickremesinghe as a real change from the government that was toppled earlier this month when Rajapaksa fled the country as angry mobs stormed his office.
Born into a wealthy and politically active family whose fortunes were made in timber and the media, Wickremesinghe trained as a lawyer and was first elected to parliament exactly 45 years before being sworn in on Thursday.
In the coming days, he is expected to deliver a major political speech outlining plans to resolve Sri Lanka’s grave economic, humanitarian and political crisis.
Speaking just after being declared the winner of Wednesday’s secret ballot in parliament, Wickremesinghe urged fellow lawmakers to unite to save the nation.
“People don’t expect the old politics from us, they expect us to work together,” he said.
Meanwhile, in the streets, demonstrators chanted: “Ranil, go home!
Over the years, Wickremesinghe moved in and out of the prime minister’s office as his United National Party gained and lost power. But he coveted the top job, where the real power lies, standing for election twice, in 1999 and 2005.
In 2020, Wickremesinghe’s party splintered and suffered a humiliating defeat in national elections. He became its sole representative in Parliament, appointed rather than elected to its seat based on the proportion of votes. Critics argued that he had no warrant.
In May, Rajapaksa turned to Wickremesinghe to replace his brother Mahinda Rajapaksa as prime minister after Mahinda was forced to step down.
The hope was to restore Sri Lanka’s international credibility after it stopped repaying its $51 billion foreign debt when its foreign exchange reserves reached dangerously low levels, and Wickremesenghe conducted negotiations with the Monetary Fund internationally on a rescue plan.
But critics accuse him of shielding members of the Rajapaksa family, who are widely accused of driving the nation to ruin, from allegations of corruption and other wrongdoing.
Rajapaksa’s resignation led to Wickremesinghe becoming interim president, in addition to prime minister and finance minister. His assurances that he would restore order and severely punish protesters who attacked politicians’ homes during the unrest won him the support of dozens of lawmakers loyal to Rajapaksa.
He cannot afford to appear soft on security: The Islamic State-inspired terrorist attacks that killed 260 people in 2019 were widely blamed on intelligence failures resulting from fractured communication and friction between Wickremesinghe , then Prime Minister, and President Maithripala Sirisena.
Tourism has been devastated. Then came the pandemic.
During his long career, Wickremesinghe headed various ministries, as did his new prime minister, Gunawardena.
Gunawardena completed a business degree in the United States and worked in New York before returning to Sri Lanka when her father, Philip, who helped lead Sri Lanka to independence from Britain, died.
Wickremesinghe has become the public face of the Sri Lankan crisis, delivering weekly speeches in parliament, raising taxes and pledging to reshuffle a government that is increasingly concentrating power in the presidency – a trend that many believe helped bring the country to its current situation.
It is unclear whether, now that he has won the coveted presidency, Wickremesinghe will support reforms aimed at limiting his powers.
READ MORE: Sri Lanka’s interim president declares emergency as protests escalate
He has been known to take the initiative at critical times.
In 2002, he attempted to end a year-long civil war, signing a Norwegian-brokered peace deal with rebels fighting to create an independent state for the ethnic Tamil minority. The ceasefire won Wickremesinghe international recognition, helping him save an economy on the verge of collapse after Tamil Tiger fighters attacked the island’s only international airport and destroyed scores of planes.
But the pact angered Sinhalese Buddhist nationalists who saw it as a betrayal, and the ceasefire did not hold. Then-president Chandrika Kumaratunga sacked Wickremesinghe and his cabinet and called an election, which his party lost.
Wickremesinghe ran for president the following year, losing to nationalist Mahinda Rajapaksa. In 2009, Rajapaksa defeated the Tamil Tigers, becoming a national hero in the eyes of the majority of Sinhalese Buddhists. For most of the years since then, the Rajapaksa family has dominated Sri Lankan politics, appointing family and friends to key political and administrative positions.
Wickremesinghe tends to keep his private life a secret. He is married to Maitree Wickremesinghe, professor and expert in gender and feminist studies.
Kurtenbach reported from Bangkok.