Sri Lanka: Is ‘Mr Clean’ eyeing the presidency?

The suit-clad prime minister, who is more comfortable in English than Sinhala and less popular with the majority lower middle-class population, could be the answer to Sri Lanka’s unprecedented economic crisis for now



By Qadijah Irshad

Published: Sat 14 May 2022, 12:45 AM

Ranil Wickremesighe, the longest running leader for the oldest political party in Sri Lanka, was sworn in as prime minister for the sixth time on Thursday evening. His appointment comes three days after Mahinda Rajapaksa, brother of President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, resigned as prime minister following island-wide riots, incited by Rajapaksa supporters.

The 73-year-old was appointed amid a severe economic crisis in the nation, that has metamorphosed into a political upheaval. Suffering Sri Lankans, who have been facing a severe shortage of essential food, medicines, fuel and eight-hour long blackouts over months, have been calling the Rajapaksas to step down. Although Wickremesinghe, with his sound economic policies and strong international relations, has been grudgingly accepted as the man of the moment to help the debt ridden, nearly bankrupt nation, Sri Lankans are unhappy with his hand-in-glove relationship with the allegedly corrupt Rajapaksas.

Island-wide protestors, who have been demanding the expulsion of the Rajapaksas from politics, shouted for Wickremesinghe to step down immediately after his appointment.

Insiders say that Wickremesinghe’s appointment without election, following closed-door talks with the president on Wednesday, bodes only one thing — that he will use his premiership to protect the Rajapaksa family, who have been accused of widescale corruption of billions of dollars, bringing the nation to its knees.

Pact with Rajapaksas?

Wide speculation within political circles indicates that Wickremesinghe may have reached an agreement with the president to protect the allegedly nepotic Rajapaksa family. Sources say that President Rajapaksa might quit due to public angst, making way for Wickremesinghe to become president. According to the Sri Lankan constitution, the prime minister will automatically become president upon the resignation or death of a president. For a man who has lost majority public support, been prime minister six times and lost two presidential elections in 45 years of politics, this might well be his final chance at presidency.

The Rajapaksa-Wickremesinghe pact goes beyond Thursday’s appointment. In 2015, Wickremesinghe’s party led a coalition alliance and announced a common candidate, Maithripala Sirisena, for president against then president Mahinda Rajapaksa. Sirisena, an ally and health minister in the Rajapaksa government defected, and won the elections, with Wickremesinghe being appointed prime minister for 100 days in accordance with a 100-day programme. The Sirisena-Wickremesinghe election pledge promised to sweep corruption and bring perpetrators to justice. At this juncture, the Rajapaksas, who had been hailed as heroes for ending a three-decade civil war against the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Ealam (LTTE), had fallen from grace due to nepotism and wide scale corruption.

After the 100 days, Wickremesinghe’s coalition alliance — the United National Front for Good Governance — won the parliamentary elections with 106 seats. Although it fell short of an outright majority, Wickremesinghe was re-elected prime minister for the third time, with over 35 of the Rajapaksa party members defecting and joining his cabinet.

Wickremesinghe led the government with strong promises. Heading the list was bringing Mahinda and Gotabaya Rajapaksa, who served as defence minister during his brother’s presidency to trial for war crimes allegations, human rights violation, and mass corruption. Despite mounting evidence against the two brothers and their family members, for killings and disappearances of journalists, anti-Rajapaksa civilians and sportsmen, the investigations and interrogations did not lead to any charges. Public fury over the blatant cover-up of a Wickremesinghe-led investigations grew, when evidence following the exhumation of the body of a star rugby player, Wasim Thajudeen, mysteriously went missing. Evidence proved that Thajudeen had been abducted, tortured and murdered, allegedly upon the orders of the second son of Mahinda Rajapaksa.

The last premiership of Wickremesinghe also marred his image as “Mr Clean” that he had earned from the public for not dabbling in family politics and corruption. Born into a wealthy family, with no siblings or children of his own, Wickremesinghe remained a cut above the rest in a nation that was steeped in nepotism and corruption.

The public, however, lost all faith when a bond scam involving the hen central bank governor, Arjuna Mahendra, a close confidante of Wickremesinghe, cost the country $11 million. This also soured his relationship with president Sirisena, who sacked Wickremesinghe overnight and brought back his former ally Rajapaksa back as prime minister. Following 52 days of constitutional crisis, Wickremesinghe was reinstated as prime minister after receiving 117 votes in favour of the 225-member legislative body.

During this period, a series of bombs targeting churches and civilians on Easter Sunday in 2019, killed more than 250 people, and plummeted the waning popularity of the UNP further. Critics blamed the government for ignoring warnings that could have prevented the attacks. Wickremesinghe’s party lost in the next elections, with the UNP securing just one seat in the parliament.

But Wickremesinghe has not always been an unpopular man. He cut a dashing figure when he entered politics as a young lawyer in 1977. Under the shadow of his uncle, then president Junius Jayawardene, the 28-year-old, who was the youngest parliamentarian, soon climbed up the UNP party ladder.

Elite background

Wickremesinghe hails from an elite family belonging to a high caste, and his roots go back to pre-independence Sri Lanka. His maternal grandfather, D.R Wijewardena, supported the independence movement with a series of nationalistic newspapers. His paternal grandfather, C.G Wickremesinghe, was the most senior Sri Lankan colonial government servant.

His father, Esmond Wickremesinghe was the managing director of Lake House, the publishing empire started by his father-in-law, and later became one of the closest confidantes of the UNP. Wickremesinghe, who is widely read, once said he would have taken journalism as a career if his family’s publishing empire had not been taken over by the government under Sirimavo Bandaranaike, the first woman prime minister of the world.

Young Wickremesinghe worked with the UNP during its resurgence, following a disastrous defeat by a coalition led by Bandaranaike in 1970. He joined the party following its landslide victory in 1977, led by his uncle president Jayawardene.

It was the beginning of an era of hope and optimism of the country, and the educated, eloquent, English-speaking young man, who schooled at the elite Royal College, was looked upon as a role model by the youth of the nation. The man who is considered crafty and intelligent by his peers, was first posted as deputy foreign minister, and then as minister of youth affairs and employment. He went on to make marked reforms during his tenure as minister of education.

In his four years as minister of industries under president Ranasinghe Premadasa, Wickremesinghe made some key changes to the Sri Lankan stock market, attracting much needed foreign investors to the country.

During his later years in power, Wickremesinghe has been known to take on larger projects and neglect grass root problems of the nation. This, together with his inability to connect to the masses, has led the suit-clad Wickremesinghe, who is more comfortable in English than Sinhala, to become less popular with the majority lower middle-class population.

First premiership

He first catapulted into the seat of premiership following the assassination of former president Premadasa in 1993, when then incumbent prime minister D.B. Wijetunga filled the presidential seat. Shortly before the assassination, the top two members of Wickremesinghe’s party, Gamini Fonseka and Lalith Athulathmudali, broke away, after a failed attempt to pass a no-confidence motion against Premadasa, paving the way for Wickremesinghe to become prime minister for the first time.

Following his stint as prime minister, he contested and lost in his first presidential election in 1994, against Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga, the daughter of late prime ministers S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike and Sirimavo Banadaranaike. Kumaratunge, who entered politics as the widow of assassinated popular former movie star and politician Vijaya Kumaratunga, gathered a large number of sympathy votes. Wickremesinghe was then appointed prime minister for the second time by president Kumaratunga, his childhood friend, who later became his bitter political rival.

In the same year, Wickremesinghe became leader of the UNP, a post he has held for 28 years, attracting much criticism.

In 2005, he failed once more in a bid to become president, this time losing narrowly by just about 150,000 votes to Mahinda Rajapaksa. This was during the middle of the bloody conflict, where Tamil and Muslim voters in the North and East, a strong UNP support base, were prevented from voting by the LTTE. Wickremesinghe has not run for president since.

Despite his survival in a political quagmire for almost half-a-century, Wickremesinghe has refused to relinquish party leadership to younger members. He has been accused of not grooming able, younger members to take over the leadership, and instead of elevating individuals prone to corruption, with limited intellect.

This resulted in Sajith Premadasa, son of the late president Premadasa, to break away from the UNP and form the Samagi Jana Balawegaya (United People’s Power) party in 2020.

Despite his inefficacies and mistrust by the public, critics and fellow politicians believe that Wickremesinghe is the man of the hour due to his strong international relations and economic acumen. Inside sources say that following his appointment as prime minister, several countries, including Japan, India and the United States, with whom Wickremesinghe maintains close ties, have already pledged financial support for the crippled nation. Reversing years of economic mismanagement and corruption and winning public support would yet be his biggest challenge.

Whatever his motives be, in the short run, the man the public detests as much as the Rajapaksas, could be the answer to Sri Lanka’s unprecedented economic crisis.


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