Colombo, Sri Lanka – Ranil Wickremesinghe has been elected Sri Lanka’s new president, less than a week after his predecessor Gotabaya Rajapaksa was forced to flee the country amid mass protests over the country’s crippling economic crisis.
Wickremesinghe, a shrewd politician with a career spanning more than four decades, is due to serve the rest of the presidential term until November 2024.
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“Our divisions are over. We have to work together now,” the 73-year-old leader of the United National Party (UNP) said on Wednesday after winning the vote in parliament.
Protesters angry with shortages of food and fuel, however, have pledged to oppose Wickremesinghe’s elevation to the country’s top post, accusing him of shielding the Rajapaksa family who have been blamed for running the island nation of 22 million into the ground.
Last week, demonstrators stormed Gotabaya’s official residence as well as Wickremesinghe’s private residence and office in Colombo, forcing the president to flee to Singapore via the Maldives. It came two months after Mahinda Rajapaksa, Gotabaya’s elder brother and prime minister, was forced to resign, making way for Wickremesinghe.
Wickremesinghe has warned that he will “firmly” deal with the largely peaceful protest movement known as Aragalaya [meaning struggle in Sinhala language] that erupted in April after the country faced acute shortages of electricity and other essential items due to a lack of foreign reserves. The country defaulted on its $51bn external debt the same month.
“If you try to topple the government, occupy the president’s office and the prime minister’s office, that is not democracy; it is against the law. We will deal with them firmly according to the law,” he said.
Wickremesinghe imposed a state of emergency after becoming acting president last week, raising fears among protesters, who have been camping at the Galle Face in Colombo since April 9, that he might use force to suppress the movement.
“The protesters must get together now and go ahead with specific plans under a unified leadership. The more we wait, Ranil will have a chance to suppress us,” Shalika Wimalasena, a demonstrator, told Al Jazeera.
“Ranil was elected president to protect the Rajapaksas,” he said.
Damitha Abeyrathne, a popular actress and protest leader, said protesters wanted an interim government led by a respected person until elections were held.
“We all knew that politics was a dirty game and today we saw a good example of this. The MPs have shown that they don’t care about the people,” Abeyrathne told Al Jazeera.
“We are ready to start the next battle. We are not against anyone personally. We are against corruption and those who protect the crooks,” she said, referring to the old political elite accused of corruption and responsible for the country’s economic mess.
Wickremesinghe was born on March 24, 1949, into an influential political family. His uncle, Junius Richard Jayewardene, is a former president and prime minister.
A lawyer-turned-politician, Wickremesinghe won his first parliamentary election in 1977 and became prime minister for the first time in 1993 – a post he has held six times overall.
Wickremesinghe’s political career witnessed a dramatic turnaround in recent weeks, nearly two years after his UNP party did not win a seat in the 2020 parliamentary elections.
Since retaking the post of prime minister in May, he claimed to have re-established Sri Lanka’s foreign relations, proposed constitutional reforms to clip the president’s powers and held talks with the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and World Bank in efforts to stabilise the economy.
His supporters, as well as some critics, say Wickremesinghe is best suited to lift the island nation out of the crisis, pointing to his vast governance experience, international standing and “technocratic” skills.
In an interview with Al Jazeera last month, the veteran leader said he was confident he could turn the economy around and backed the protesters’ demands for a change in the political system.
Wickremesinghe says he wants to establish political stability to conclude the IMF bailout deal that the country desperately needs.
He has backed economic reforms to attract investment and move Sri Lanka towards an export-oriented economy. But his immediate challenge is to ensure the supply of fuel and food to millions.
Critics have accused Wickremesinghe of opportunism after agreeing to return to the post of prime minister, but he says he took up the job for the sake of his country.
“I thought ‘the situation is bad, it’s your country, so you can’t be wondering whether you are going to succeed or not. You take it over and work to succeed’,” he had told Al Jazeera.
Alan Keenan, senior consultant with the International Crisis Group, said Wickremesinghe’s alignment to the Rajapaksa family over the past few months – and some believe for much longer – has “damaged his political legitimacy”.
“To establish at least some popular legitimacy, he should commit to support a constitutional amendment to abolish the post of executive president and to call general elections no later than six months from now,” Keenan told Al Jazeera.
“The new president will have to do a lot to reassure them [protesters] that he has the national interest at heart,” he said, urging Wickremesinghe against cracking down on protests.
Political analysts describe Wickremesinghe as an astute politician who has grabbed opportunities to cling to power.
“He is a politician from the old order. He knows the nitty-gritty of tactics in parliamentary politics, because of that he has been able to manoeuvre his way through various crises,” said Uditha Devapriya, chief analyst of international relations at Factum.
“He has managed to make use of various situations to his advantage,” added Devapriya, pointing out that the Rajapaksa government, which had dubbed him a “traitor”, made way for his ascendance to power.
Wickremesinghe has also been accused of protecting the Rajapaksas during his tenure as prime minister from 2015-2019, under President Maithripala Sirisena.
“When he became prime minister in 2015, he came with a mandate to bring the Rajapaksas to book, but he slowed things down when it came to cases against the Rajapaksas who were viewed as extremely corrupt,” Devapriya said.
The coalition government at the time was also racked by corruption, nepotism and a constitutional crisis.
He appointed a protégé as the governor of the Sri Lanka central bank, who was forced to resign over a corruption scandal. The appointment of cronies in government positions also undermined the image of the government.
Shiral Lakthilaka, an independent lawyer and political analyst, accused Wickremesinghe of bringing cronies into his cabinet.
“This is nepotism,” said Lakthilake, who worked with Wickremesinghe during 2001-2009. “Look at Ranil’s team … His friends and ‘yes men’ are in his team.”
The year 2017 saw the country’s first primary surplus in six decades due to better fiscal management.
But the 2019 Easter Sunday attacks were the final blow to Wickremesinghe’s government and paved the way for the return of the Rajapaksas.
As president, however, Gotabaya Rajapaksa resorted to populist tax policies that favoured cronies instead of addressing the structural issues affecting the economy. He also rode on ethnonationalism targeting Tamil and Muslim minorities and brought a constitutional amendment to arm the presidency with unbridled power.
The isolationist foreign policy saw Sri Lanka’s close friends pushed away. Major projects by Japan and China were cancelled in controversial decisions by the Rajapaksa government.
Wickremesinghe was among those who had warned about the reckless policy decisions of the Rajapaksa government.
After taking over as prime minister, Wickremesinghe showed pragmatism, as he tried to balance relations with the West and China – a key lender – and northern neighbour India.
Analysts say he had worked quite well with China during 2015-2019, rather than entirely aligning with the West with whom he has cultivated a warm relationship. He has also struck a warm rapport with New Delhi, which has provided a much-needed credit line to buy fuel in the past several months.
“He didn’t take West’s side in the Russia-Ukraine war. He was never ideologically aligned to any side, at least now,” said Devapriya.
Wickremesinghe has called for the opening of the economy, but has also supported state intervention when needed.
“In the 1970s and 1980s he was a neo-liberal like his uncle Junius Richard Jayewardene, but he has also adopted some pragmatic measures,” Umesh Moramudali, lecturer at the department of economics at the University of Colombo, told Al Jazeera.
“In fact, he didn’t privatise as much as Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga during her term as president in the 1990s,” said Moramudali.
Wickremesinghe is credited with setting up Sri Lanka’s first Special Economic Zone, which attracted international investors, in the late 1980s under President Ranasinghe Premadasa.
His position on political issues has also varied from time to time. On the one hand, he opposed the proposal for a federal state but on the other, he backed peace with Tamil rebels, who initially sought more autonomy in the northern region.
“To his credit, he went around the world and convinced a lot of world leaders that the peace process was worth it. He also convened a donor conference where countries pledged about $4.5bn, this was a big amount in the early 2000s,” Devapriya said.
Pubudu Jayagoda, education secretary at the Frontline Socialist Party, believes Wickremesinghe cannot solve the crisis for which he blamed the neoliberal economic policies implemented in the past four decades.
“We lost our energy sovereignty due to privatisation of all the state enterprises and selling off the national assets,” Jayagoda told Al Jazeera.
“I’m not talking about a totally closed economy; we have to build trade relationships, economic relationships, diplomatic relationships with other countries.
“But I think we must make sure we have national security, especially in the energy sector.”
Another criticism of Wickremesinghe is that he has not allowed new leaders to grow in the UNP. In 2019, the UNP suffered a split after senior leader Sajith Premadasa formed a new party over differences with Wickremesinghe.
In the 2019 presidential election, Premadasa’s candidacy was not finalised till the last moment, while the two men sparred publicly over policy issues.
“This gave rise to the perception that Ranil [Wickremeshinghe] preferred Gotabaya over Sajith. If Sajith became president, Ranil would have to play second fiddle,” Devapriya, from Factum, said.
But the move boomeranged as the UNP suffered its worst defeat in the 2019 elections.
Wickremesinghe has also been accused of being an elitist – a charge he has denied.
But unlike the Rajapaksas, who have dominated Sri Lanka’s politics in the past two decades, he has not made populist proposals or resorted to rabble rousing.
“Ranil has not been able to tap into that sentiment. That’s the biggest difference you see between Ranil and the very family and the very background that he hails from,” Devapriya said.
“The UNP has a history of nationalist politics. Jayewardene, in 1977 didn’t come to power promising a free liberalised economy, but on the promise to establish a righteous society based on the principles of Buddhism.”