Ranil Wickremesinghe sworn in as Prime Minister of Sri Lanka

He is widely accepted as a man who could manage the economy with far-sighted policies

By Qadijah Irshad

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AFP file photo
AFP file photo

Published: Thu 12 May 2022, 5:27 PM

Last updated: Fri 13 May 2022, 10:31 AM

Five-time prime minister Ranil Wickremesinghe was sworn in as the new prime minister of Sri Lanka on Thursday evening, after violent mobs ousted former premier Mahinda Rajapaksa three days ago.

Wickremesinghe took oath before President Gotabaya Rajapaksa at the President’s House.

“He is being sworn in as prime minister this evening because a number of members of the parliament have asked him to take over and solve the country’s problems,” Vajira Abeywardena, an official of Wickremesinghe’s United National Party (UNP), was reported saying.

Wickremesinghe is considered a pro-West, free market supporter, with strong contacts in the international arena. These qualifications that could well mean monetary and financial support from the international community to a nearly bankrupt nation, may not however appease the protestors who want more than a new premier.

“We want Gota out, and then we can look into whether Ranil should be appointed or not. That’s the only way forward to economic stability,” said Mahesh Kapuarachchi, a protestor, referring to president Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s nickname.

The president addressing the nation Wednesday night said that he will abolish the Executive Presidency, that gives sweeping powers to the incumbent president – a concession to the demands of the protestors and opposition party members.

“I am taking measures to form a new government, with a prime minister who has the majority confidence of the parliament and ministers who could gain the confidence of the nation,” said Rajapaksa, a few hours after his meeting with Wickremesinghe behind closed doors.

The move to appoint Wickremesinghe as prime minister comes after several meetings with political party leaders ended inconclusively the past two days, despite dire warnings by Sri Lanka’s central bank governor that the economy could “completely collapse” if a new government was not appointed within days.

Sri Lankans have been protesting for months, frustrated with the sharp depreciation of the Rupee, living costs that have risen by 300 per cent, and severe shortage of essential food, medicine, fuel and blackouts lasting five to eight hours a day.

A parliamentarian from Wickremesinghe’s United National Party (UNP) told Khaleej Times, that he is stepping in at a time when others are “afraid” to take over.

“Even Sajith is reluctant to take this responsibility,” he said, referring to Sajith Premadasa, the leader of SJB, a breakaway faction of the UNP.

“Getting the country out of this financial mess will be difficult task, and whoever steps in will soon become unpopular, as it is a long road ahead, and the people are not going to be patient.”

As Sri Lanka grappled with three days of violence followed by a Rajapaksa-incited attack on peaceful protestors, the unprecedented economic crisis of the dollar trapped nation steepened. The resignation of prime minister Mahinda Rajapaksa, continued curfews and shoot on sight orders to the military has morphed the economic upheaval into a political one.

Following the resignation and evacuation of Rajapaksa when angry mobs stormed his official residence, President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, the younger brother of the former president held talks with party leaders to appoint a new prime minister.

Although former Speaker of the Parliament, 81-year-old Karu Jayasuriy was tipped off to be appointed as the new premier, on Wednesday Wickremesinghe and the president had a private meeting, where they supposedly agreed on his appointment.

English speaking, suit clad Wickremesinghe remains a stark contrast to most Sri Lankan politicians, and has been seen as a leader who cannot connect to the majority lower middle-class masses of the island nation.

The nephew of former prime minister Junius Jayewardene, Wickremesinghe was born into an affluent family with connections. However, born with a silver spoon and being referred to as “the last representative of the old elite” has its drawbacks as a leader in a nationalistic state, where the majority lower middle class earns less than $3 per day.

Despite Wickremesinghe’s apparent unpopularity among the masses, even opposition members, grudgingly say that he may be the man of the hour. His strong contacts with the West and the International Monetary Fund, that Sri Lanka has approached for a bail out after being rendered almost bankrupt by the Rajapaksas, leans in his favour.

However, critics say that Wickremesinghe has been hand in glove with the now unpopular Rajapaksas to retain his leadership and play party politics.

A lawyer by profession, 28-year-old Wickremesinghe was first elected to parliament in 1977, becoming the youngest parliamentarian at the time. He moved up the party ladder swiftly, becoming the Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs under his uncle, president Jayewardene. He was then appointed to the Cabinet as the Minister of Youth Affairs and Employment, and later on was handed the portfolio of Education.

When, Ranasinghe Premadasa was elected president in 1989, Wickremesinghe was made the Minister of Industries and Leader of the House.

Wickremesinghe has been sworn in as prime minister the most number of times in the country's history, on five occasions. This will be the 73-year-old’s sixth tenure as premier.

In 1993, Wickremasinghe filled the vacant seat of the prime minister, when D.B. Wijetunga was pushed into the presidential seat, following the assassination of president Ranasinghe Premadasa by the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE).

In 1994, the year Wickremesinghe lost his first presidential elections to Chandrika Kumaratunga, he filled the void of leader of the United National Party, when then leader Gamini Dissanayake was killed by suspected LTTE rebels.

Wickremesinghe himself has narrowly escaped an assassination attempt when a bomb exploded during a meeting he was addressing in Eppawala, in North East Sri Lanka.

Following a landslide victory for the UNP in a parliamentary election led by Wickremesinghe in 2001, he served as prime minister for four years for the second time.

In 2005, he lost another presidential election, this time to Mahinda Rajapaksa.

In 2015, when Wickremesinghe’s UNP-led, common surprise presidential candidate Maithripala Sirisena defeated his former ally Mahinda Rajapaksa, Wickremesinghe was appointed prime minister during a 100 day programme plan.

Following the 100 days, Wickremasinghe returned to office for the fourth time as prime minister after his party won the closely contested general election.

Over the months of his premiership, however, the Sirisena-Wickremesinghe relationship soured, steeped in betrayal and mistrust. Seven months into the premiership, Sirisena sacked Wickremesinghe overnight and replaced him with his former rival, Mahinda Rajapaksa.

Weeks later though, Wickremesinghe made a remarkable comeback, receiving 117 votes in favour of the 225-member legislative body, ending the constitutional crisis and being appointed prime minister for the fifth time.

At the time Sirisena said he opposed Wickremesinghe’s open market economic policies and his efforts to investigate alleged abuses during Sri Lanka’s three-decade civil war, which ended in 2009.

In the past few years, Wickremesinghe lost popularity for his unwillingness to hand over leadership to younger members of his party. His United National Party, the oldest in the country, secured just one seat in the parliamentary elections last time

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