Sri Lanka’s new president: Can ‘the fox’ defy sceptics?

Wickremesinghe has outmanoeuvred rivals -- now comes the hard part

By Toru Takahashi

TOKYO  – Ranil Wickremesinghe, dubbed “the fox” for his uncanny ability to resurrect his political fortunes time and again, has reached the pinnacle of power in Sri Lanka, a country in the throes of an economic crisis. On July 21, Wickremesinghe took office as Sri Lanka’s ninth president.

Wickremesinghe had only been named prime minister in May, following the resignation of Mahinda Rajapaksa, returning to his old job after a hiatus of two and a half years. In mid-July, Rajapaksa’s younger brother, President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, resigned after fleeing the country in the face of mass protests. Wickremesinghe was named Gotabaya’s successor by Parliament.

Wickremesinghe is known as a shrewd political survivor, but critics call him untrustworthy. Recent events amply showed the aptness of his nickname.

Mass protests earlier this month, triggered by shortages of essentials such as fuel, drugs and food, were aimed at not only the president but the prime minister as well. Wickremesinghe first announced he would step down, but then declared his bid for the presidency after Gotabaya resigned. Some praised Wickremesinghe’s willingness to take on a difficult job at a time of crisis, but many saw his flip-flop as opportunistic.

Wickremesinghe also made puzzling remarks about Sri Lanka’s negotiations with the International Monetary Fund (IMF). In his report to Parliament on July 5, he said the talks were difficult and complicated because Sri Lanka held discussions with the IMF as a developing country in the past, but is doing so as a bankrupt country now. But two weeks later, as Parliament was preparing to elect a new president, he suddenly said the negotiations were nearing a conclusion.

During that two-week period, the talks with the IMF were stalled as political unrest grew and the former president fled the country. The IMF expressed concern about the negotiations being interrupted by the political and social upheaval. It is easy to see why many thought Wickremesinghe was trying to create a favourable impression ahead of the presidential vote.

After his election as president, The Straits Times of Singapore paid Wickremesinghe a backhanded compliment, calling him “erudite but arrogant, and rich but relatively uncorrupt.”

The 73-year-old Wickremesinghe’s career is a living history of Sri Lankan politics.

In 1949, a year after Sri Lanka was granted independence as the Dominion of Ceylon in the Commonwealth of Nations, Wickremesinghe was born into an affluent family that owned a newspaper publishing house in Colombo, the country’s largest city. He became a lawyer after graduating from the prestigious University of Colombo.

Running on the ticket of the United National Party (UNP), Sri Lanka’s oldest political party, Wickremesinghe was elected to Parliament in 1977 at age 28. He was soon picked as its youngest cabinet member by then-President Junius Jayewardene, who happened to be his relative.

The long-standing conflict between Sri Lanka’s majority Sinhalese and minority Tamils escalated into a civil war in 1983. Tamil rebels fought for an independent homeland in the north and east of the island. When President Ranasinghe Premadasa was assassinated by the rebels in 1993, Wickremesinghe became prime minister for the first time at age 44. After a presidential candidate from the UNP was assassinated the following year, Wickremesinghe became head of the party, a post he has held ever since.

Wickremesinghe has been prime minister six times but had never held the nation’s highest office until this month. In the 1999 and 2005 presidential elections, he lost to candidates fielded by the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP), the UNP’s rival. It was “third time lucky” for Wickremesinghe.

After Wickremesinghe lost to Mahinda in the 2005 presidential election, he vowed to fight against the Rajapaksa family. Following his election, Mahinda appointed Gotabaya Rajapaksa as defence secretary. The pair led the military campaign that defeated the Tamil rebels in 2009, ending Sri Lanka’s 26-year civil war.

While Mahinda was seen as a hero, his abuse of power has gradually come to light. Wickremesinghe then made a surprise move, supporting Maithripala Sirisena, an anti-Mahinda lawmaker from the rival SLFP, in the 2015 presidential election, to block Mahinda’s third term as president.

Following Sirisena’s victory, Wickremesinghe became prime minister for the third time. But the relationship between the two was rocky. Despite repeated warnings from Indian intelligence, Sri Lanka failed to prevent a series of terrorist bombings in April 2019 in which more than 250 people died. Poor communication between the president and the prime minister was seen as partly to blame.

The violence brought back public memories of the civil war, paving the way for the Rajapaksa family’s return to power. Gotabaya Rajapaksa won the presidential election held in November 2019 and named Mahinda prime minister. Wickremesinghe was thus partially responsible for the Rajapaksas’ revival, which has ultimately led to Sri Lanka’s current financial woes.

As the economic crisis deepened this year, Gotabaya asked Wickremesinghe to become prime minister in May. Wickremesinghe said he would cooperate with the president in fighting the crisis but remain anti-Rajapaksa. But that remark must be taken with a grain of salt: He could not have become president without the Rajapaksas’ support.

Sri Lankan presidents are normally chosen through direct elections. But as Gotabaya did not complete his term, lawmakers elected a new president in accordance with the Constitution.

Wickremesinghe was the sole representative of the much-weakened UNP, which has just one seat — Wickremesinghe’s — in Parliament. Yet Wickremesinghe received 134 of 219 votes, thanks to the support of Rajapaksa-backed lawmakers in the ruling party.

“Unlike his immediate predecessor, he [Wickremesinghe] understands the international system and has clear and coherent views on economics. So in some ways, he is well-placed to conclude negotiations with the International Monetary Fund and to work with foreign governments to get Sri Lanka much needed financial assistance,” said Alan Keenan, a senior consultant with the International Crisis Group.

“Unfortunately, his close association with the Rajapaksa family, his reliance on the pro-Rajapaksa SLPP (Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna) party for his election and for his parliamentary majority, and his aggressive tactics designed to weaken the protest movement — all this undermines his credibility as a democratic reformist.” Keenan expects Wickremesinghe to win little public backing.

Wickremesinghe will lead Sri Lanka until his predecessor’s term ends in November 2024. To meet the IMF’s conditions for financial aid, Sri Lanka will have to carry out painful structural reforms, including fiscal austerity and large tax hikes. Considering the pain he is asking Sri Lankans to bear, Wickremesinghe’s top priority should be regaining public trust in politics.

One important reform Sri Lanka should seriously consider is diminishing the power of presidency, which allowed the Rajapaksa family to rule autocratically. To enhance its political checks and balances, Sri Lanka needs to amend the Constitution to curb presidential power, or take more drastic steps such as reviving a parliamentary cabinet system.

Before the Jayewardene administration strengthened presidential authority in the late 1970s, emulating the French system, the post of president was largely ceremonial, as in other former British colonies, such as India and Singapore. Many pundits question whether Wickremesinghe can destroy the legacy of his uncle, who is credited with the UNP’s rebirth. A reform of the presidency would also lessen the power he has craved for so long.

Wickremesinghe’s nickname fits him well: He has achieved his dream of becoming president despite not being particularly popular with the public and not belonging to a majority party. The question is what kind of legacy this wily politician will leave behind. His success – or failure – as president will become clear much sooner than many expect.

– Toru Takahashi is senior staff writer for Nikkei, which originally published this article




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