Ranil Wickremesinghe has been sworn in as Sri Lankan prime minister for the sixth time as the island nation faces political and economic crises. His appointment comes days after Mahinda Rajapaksa, brother of President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, vacated the position amid riots triggered by his supporters.
Wickremesinghe, 73, is the scion of an elite family whose roots go back to pre-independence Sri Lanka, where his maternal grandfather DR Wijewardena published a series of newspapers supporting the independence movement. His paternal grandfather, CG Wickremesinghe, was the most senior Sri Lankan colonial government servant.
His father, Esmond Wickremesinghe, was an integral part of the post-colonial establishment. First, as the managing director of Lake House, the publishing empire started by his father-in-law, and later as one of the closest confidantes of the United National Party (UNP) leadership of which Wickremesinghe is now the leader.
As a young lawyer, Ranil Wickremesinghe became involved in the resurgence of the UNP following a catastrophic defeat in 1970 to a coalition led by late Prime Minister Sirimavo Bandaranaike. It was Wickremesinghe’s maternal cousin JR Jayawardene who led the party’s resurgence, coming back to power in 1977 with a resounding majority in parliament.
Young Wickremesinghe became the deputy foreign minister and a short while later shifted to a newly created post as minister of youth affairs and employment. Subsequently, he became the minister of education and served a long stint as the minister of industries under president Ranasinghe Premadasa, where he was instrumental in major changes to the Sri Lankan stock market and attracting foreign investors to the country.
First term as prime minister
He served his first stint as the prime minister when President Premadasa was assassinated on May 1, 1993, and DB Wijetunga took over the presidency. Following the defeat of the UNP at the hand of late-Prime Minister Bandaranaike’s daughter Chandrika Bandaranaike. After the defeat, Wickremesinghe became the leader of the opposition until he made a comeback as Prime Minister under the presidency of Bandaranaike in 2000.
His relationship with the president, who was a childhood friend but a bitter political enemy, became strained in 2004, and Chandrika took over some of the vital ministries Wickremesinghe’s UNP government held, including defence.
When Wickremesinghe contested the presidency in 2005 he narrowly lost to Mahinda Rajapaksa, with a deficit of approximately 150,000 votes. Tamil rebels (Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam) forcibly prevented voting from taking place in the Northern and Eastern provinces where Wickremesinghe has been expected to score heavily.
Once again, he became the leader of the opposition and has not run for the presidency since. In 2010, he put forward General Sarath Fonseka as his preferred candidate, and in 2015, he entered into a coalition with a breakaway faction of Rajapaksa’s party, with the Sri Lank Freedom Party (SLFP) general secretary, Maithripala Sirisena, becoming the president in 2015.
Removal from office and reinstatement
A scandal involving the central bank governor, Arjuna Mahendra, a close confidante of Wickremesinghe, quickly soured relations between Wickremesinghe and Sirisena.
The scandal led to a dysfunctional government and the president attempted to remove Wickremesinghe as prime minister in 2018, three years into the coalition government. The move, which led to Mahinda Rajapaksa returning as prime minister for 52 days, was decried by critics as a constitutional coup. The supreme court overturned the development and Wickremesinghe once again became the prime minister.
During this period the UNP government made several strides in economic restructuring with IMF assistance, and for the first time since 1954, Sri Lanka had a primary account surplus. This was achieved through high taxation, mostly on corporations, along with a safety net that ensured lower-income earners were protected.
Wickremesinghe’s popularity fell in the wake of a series of bombings targeting civilians on Easter Sunday, 2019, which killed more than 250 people. Critics accused the government of failing to do enough to prevent the attacks and Wickremesinghe was defeated in an election later that year.
The next government of Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa and his brother and President Gotabaya Rajapaksa immediately moved to change the tax structure and reduce high corporate taxes, which caused the country’s deficit to swell. The problem was exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic, as Sri Lanka’s main sources of foreign income from tourism and expatriate earnings dried up.
The dearth of foreign exchange caused by the pandemic led to a disastrous policy decision to overnight change from chemical fertiliser to organic fertiliser as the government was unable to import chemical fertiliser. This led to a chaotic and cascading effect on Sri Lanka’s economy, culminating with the country running out of foreign reserves and Wickremesinghe being requested by President Rajapaksa to take over the reins of the government.
Wickremesinghe now faces the task of reversing years of economic mismanagement and corruption and winning popular support.