Ranil Wickremesinghe, a seasoned politician who was appointed as the Prime Minister in May to deal with Sri Lanka’s worst economic crisis in decades, faces new challenges to fix a collapsed economy, end political turmoil and unite the deeply divided country in his new role as President.
The 73-year-old lawyer-turned politician, who is believed to be close to India and its leaders, was appointed as the 26th prime minister of Sri Lanka in May by then President Gotabaya Rajapaksa amidst the worst economic crisis in the country. His appointment took place nearly two years after his United National Party (UNP) was routed and failed to win a single seat in the general election held in August 2020.
His appointment filled the void of leadership as Sri Lanka was without a government following the ouster of Gotabaya’s elder brother and Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa after violent protests following an attack on the anti-government protesters by his supporters.
Widely accepted in political circles as a man who could manage the economy with far-sighted policies, Wickremesinghe, however, struggled to fix the economy which, he said, had collapsed at the time of his appointment in May.
He was appointed acting president on July 13 after President Rajapaksa fled to the Maldives and then to Singapore from where he resigned in the face of public revolt against his government’s mishandling of the country’s economy.
Wickremesinghe was later sworn in as the eighth President after he defeated former information minister Dullas Alahapperuma during a vote in parliament. Wickremesinghe, who was backed by members of the fragmented ruling coalition, remained unpopular among voters who view him as a holdover from the previous government that led the country into an economic crisis in decades.
Wickremesinghe, perceived as the Sri Lankan politician who could command international cooperation, has held many important posts during his political career spanning four and half decades.
He built a personal rapport with Sri Lanka’s immediate neighbour India and visited the country on four occasions – October 2016, April 2017, November 2017, and October 2018 – during his previous term as the prime minister.
During the same period, Prime Minister Narendra Modi made two visits to Sri Lankan and he also responded to a personal request from Wickremesinghe to help the island nation set up the 1990 ambulance system – a free health care service that became immensely helpful during Covid-19.
Despite the opposition from then President Maithripala Sirisena, Wickremesinghe had backed the deal with India on the Colombo port’s eastern terminal which the Rajapsksas reneged in 2020.
His party UNP, the oldest party in the country, had failed to win a single seat in the 2020 parliamentary polls. He was unseated for the first time since 1977 but later found his way to Parliament through the sole national list allocated to the UNP based on the cumulative national vote.
His deputy Sajith Premadasa had led the breakaway Samagi Jana Balawegaya (SJB) and became the main Opposition.
Wickremesinghe, the nephew of Sri Lanka’s first executive president Junius Jayewardene, was first appointed Prime Minister from 1993-1994 after the assassination of President Ranasinghe Premadasa.
He was also elected as the Prime Minister from 2001-2004 when the United National Front Government won the general elections in 2001. But he lost power in 2004 after Chandrika Kumaratunga called early elections.
During his term as Prime Minister, he began peace talks with the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), even offering a power-sharing deal. Both Kumaratunga and Mahinda Rajapaksa had accused him of being too lenient with LTTE and of offering them too many concessions.
Wickremesinghe had handed a shock defeat to Mahinda Rajapaksa in 2015 polls and led a minority government.
When he assumed the Prime Minister’s office for the third time in 2015, he pledged to devolve power to the country’s Tamil minority, in a step toward national reconciliation six years after a military offensive crushed the LTTE.
In 2018, then President Sirisena sacked Prime Minister Wickremesinghe and appointed Mahinda Rajapaksa as the new premier. Sirisena’s move triggered a constitutional crisis in the country. However, a Supreme court verdict forced President Sirisena to reinstate Wickremesinghe, ending Rajapaksa’s brief regime.
Born in 1949 after Sri Lanka gained independence from the British, Wickremesinghe was elected to Parliament in 1977 at the age of 28, having worked in the Youth League of the United National Party (UNP) from his university days.
As the youngest minister in Sri Lanka at the time, he held the post of Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs under President Jayewardene.
He was later appointed to the Cabinet as the Minister of Youth Affairs and Employment. He has also held a portfolio in Education. Then in 1989, as a seasoned legislator, he was made the Leader of the House under President Premadasa. He has also served as the Minister of Industries, Science, and Technology.