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The new Sri Lankan PM is the man many Lankans love to hate – the enigmatic Ranil Wickremesinghe. He was sworn in as the Prime Minister for a record sixth time yesterday by President Gotabaya Rajapaksa

Wickremesinghe is the Leader of the United National Party (UNP) and the go-to man whenever Sri Lanka’s economy is in dire straits. In 2001 when the country, under the Executive Presidency of Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga was on the verge of bankruptcy, it was Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe who managed to reverse the tide.

Yet again in 2015 when Sri Lanka was nearly bankrupted by the Mahinda Rajapaksa administration, it was once again Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe who came to the rescue. However, both in 2001 and in 2015, Wickremesinghe’s attempts to rescue and rebuild Sri Lanka’s economy were undermined by opposing political elements.

Ranil Wickremesinghe hails from an old-money, aristocratic political family and is the nephew of Sri Lanka’s first Executive President, J R Jayewardene. After graduating from the University of Ceylon he qualified as an advocate from the Ceylon Law College in the early 1970s. He became actively involved in politics through Sri Lanka’s “grand old party”, the UNP.

Wickremesinghe was first elected to Parliament at the 1977 parliamentary elections and was appointed Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs by his uncle, President J. R. Jayewardene. He was subsequently appointed Minister of Youth Affairs and Employment, becoming the youngest Cabinet Minister in Sri Lanka. Subsequently, President Ranasinghe Premadasa appointed him as the Minister of Industry, Science and Technology as well as the Leader of the House.

Both in 2001 and in 2015, Wickremesinghe’s attempts to rescue and rebuild Sri Lanka’s economy were undermined by opposing political elements

Following the assassination of President Premadasa, Prime Minister D B Wijetunge assumed the mantle of the President and Ranil Wickremesinghe was appointed as the Prime Minister. During his first stint as the Premier, Wickremesinghe was credited for taking Sri Lanka through a massive economic transformation. 

Following the assassination of the UNP Leader and Presidential candidate Gamini Dissanayake in 1994, Wickremesinghe became the Leader of the UNP.

At the 1999 Presidential election, Ranil Wickremesinghe was nominated as the UNP’s Presidential candidate.  Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga – leader of the coalition Peoples Alliance (PA) party – was his rival Presidential candidate. During the election campaign Kumaratunga lost her right eye to a LTTE suicide bomber. The Presidential election held soon after saw a wave of sympathy votes sweeping Chandrika Kumaratunga to victory. 

The PA government led by Kumaratunga for six years was facing increasing criticism on two fronts; a series of military defeats at the hands of the LTTE and a stuttering economy. 

Subsequently, the United National Front coalition (UNF) led by Ranil Wickremesinghe won the 2001 Parliamentary general election. Thus, Wickremesinghe was sworn in as the 17th Sri Lankan PM in December 2001.

Sri Lanka now had a President – Chandrika Kumaratunga – from one party and the Prime Minister from another. However, Prime Minister Wickremesinghe was able to appoint his own Cabinet of Ministers. 

Three months after coming to power, Ranil Wickremesinghe’s government entered into a ceasefire agreement (CFA) with LTTE, facilitated by Norway. Thereafter, Wickremesinghe was able to win the confidence of the International Community and gain their support to assist Sri Lanka’s development initiatives. The ceasefire led to the Tokyo Donor Conference on Reconstruction and Development of the war-ravaged country, where Sri Lanka received over 4.5 billion dollars as aid. 

With the CFA in place, Sri Lanka was once again seen as safe for tourism after decades of war. Thus, the tourism industry began to boom.

The A9 Highway, the only land route connecting the South of the country with the Northern Jaffna peninsula, was reopened after 18 years. 

With the signing of the CFA, Ranil Wickremesinghe had several rounds of peace talks with the LTTE between 2002 and 2003. Wickremesinghe is said to have cunningly fanned the internecine feuds within the LTTE, thereby systematically weakening them. And, a foreign policy was designed to tighten the international noose around the LTTE.

International agreements were signed allowing Sri Lanka to obtain assistance in military training, military technology, intelligence, special training in counter-terrorism and direct monetary assistance for military development. In the event of the CFA failing, the forward-thinking Wickremesinghe got the  United States Pacific Command assessment team to carry out a study and make recommendations to strengthen the capabilities of the Sri Lanka’s Army,  Navy and the Air Force. 

The Opposition and Sri Lanka’s nationalistic movements strongly opposed the CFA and the overall peace process masterminded by the Sri Lankan PM. Thus, President Chandrika Kumaratunga, using her constitutional powers, sacked three Ministers of the Wickremesinghe led cabinet, thereby ending the incompatible coalition between herself and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe. 

Wickremesinghe was the chosen UNP Presidential candidate for the 2005 Presidential Elections. Mahinda Rajapaksa, the then Prime Minister, was nominated as the Presidential candidate of the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP). Wickremesinghe was defeated narrowly by Rajapaksa. A large number of Tamils in the Northern and Eastern parts of the country were expected to back Wickremesinghe but were prevented from voting by the LTTE. This made way for Mahinda Rajapaksa to take over the powerful Executive Presidency of Sri Lanka. 

Late 2014, with several electoral defeats behind Wickremesinghe, the UNP along with several other parties decided to field the then Secretary-General of the SLFP, Maithripala Sirisena as the Common Candidate for the Presidential Election to be held in January 2015. Sirisena pledged to appoint Ranil Wickremesinghe, as the Prime Minister if he were to win. Common Candidate Sirisena won the election and was sworn is as the 7th Executive President of Sri Lanka. And as per his pledge, he appointed Ranil Wickremesinghe as the Prime Minister. 

With the former Finance Minister, Ali Sabry dropping a bombshell in Parliament last week, stating that Sri Lanka’s foreign reserves were down to a mere 50 million dollars, Wickremesinghe will now be called upon to make some very unpalatable decisions to put the country’s economy back on track.

February 2015 saw the infamous Central Bank of Sri Lanka’s bond scandal – “Bond Scam” – unfold. President Sirisena together with a group of Ministers from his party attempted to pass a no-confidence motion against Prime Minister Wickremesinghe, but failed. From thereon, the President and Prime Minister were at loggerheads. 

In October 2018, Prime Minister Wickremesinghe survived a Constitutional coup when President Sirisena removed him from office and appointed Mahinda Rajapaksa as the Prime Minister. Following rulings by both the Supreme court and Appeal court, Wickremesinghe was reinstated as the Prime Minister.

At the 2019 Presidential election the UNP Deputy Leader, Sajith Premadasa was nominated as the party’s Presidential candidate. He was eventually defeated by the popular Gotabaya Rajapaksa. 

Following his defeat, Premadasa defected from the UNP along with 52 of the 77 party members and formed the Samagi Jana Balawegaya (SJB) -or ‘United People’s Power’. The SJB contested the 2020 Parliamentary elections which resulted in a landslide victory for the Rajapaksa controlled political party; Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP).

The UNP – ‘Grand Old Party’ – suffered its worst defeat in its history and failed to secure a single seat in Parliament save for a single National List seat. Ranil Wickremesinghe returned to Parliament via the single National list seat.

With Mahinda Rajapaksa exiting the Premiership along with his government, Sajith Premadasa as the leader of the main Opposition in Parliament, laid down four conditions in order to accept the Premiership. One of the conditions was requesting President Gotabaya Rajapaksa to resign.

An obviously piqued President Rajapaksa, in a dramatic move, appointed Ranil Wickremesinghe as the Prime Minister.

The six-times Sri Lankan PM Ranil Wickremesinghe has an unenviable task ahead of him. With the former Finance Minister, Ali Sabry dropping a bombshell in Parliament last week, stating that Sri Lanka’s foreign reserves were down to a mere 50 million dollars, Wickremesinghe will now be called upon to make some very unpalatable decisions to put the country’s economy back on track.

The IMF on 7 May issued a statement saying Sri Lanka’s debt has been assessed as unsustainable and approval of IMF financing would require adequate assurances that debt sustainability will be restored. 

Since independence from Britain in 1948, Sri Lanka experienced such economic hardships only once before in the early 70s; under Sirimavo Bandaranaike’s SLFP government.


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