New Lanka President a wily survivor
Ranil Wickremesinghe, a lawyer who served as Sri Lanka’s Prime Minister a record six times, has finally made it to the top job, securing the presidency after winning a parliamentary vote on Wednesday despite fierce public opposition to his candidacy.
“I thank parliament for this honour,” the 73-year-old said after his victory was announced by the secretary-general of the legislature. He secured 134 votes in the 225-member house, while his main rival, ruling party lawmaker Dullas Alahapperuma, got 82.
Wickremesinghe’s rise to power is remarkable. He has run unsuccessfully for President twice before but secured enough votes among lawmakers despite controlling just one seat — as leader of the United National Party (UNP). His experience in senior government positions, and a reputation as a shrewd operator, should count in his favour as he seeks a way out of Sri Lanka’s devastating economic crisis.
“Our country is facing massive challenges and we have to work on a new strategy to fulfil the aspirations of the people,” he said after winning the vote in parliament. “Now, everyone must come together.” Wickremesinghe has also recently negotiated with the IMF, and enjoys a working relationship with key donor countries including India.
Whether he can quell mass protests that led to the ouster of the previous President, Gotabaya Rajapaksa, remains to be seen. Wickremesinghe’s victory in parliament came after he secured the backing of many within the main party, Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP), which is dominated by the Rajapaksa family. He took over as Prime Minister in May after the former President’s elder brother, Mahinda Rajapaksa, quit the position following clashes between pro and anti-government protesters that triggered a deadly wave of violence.
Since then, Wickremesinghe has been involved in negotiations with the IMF for a potential bailout package of up to $3 billion, besides working on an interim budget to slash government expenditure. “This is an economic crisis and not a political crisis,” the SLPP’s general secretary Sagara Kariyawasam told Reuters.
“We feel that Ranil Wickremesinghe is the only person with the experience, the know how and the capacity to provide solutions to the economic crisis.” As President, he is to complete Rajapaksa’s term that was scheduled to end in 2024. Born into a prominent family of politicians and businessmen with large interests in the media, a 29-year-old Wickremesinghe was made the country’s youngest cabinet minister by his uncle, President Junius Jayewardene, in 1978.
In 1994, following assassinations that wiped out several of his senior colleagues, Wickremesinghe became leader of the UNP. Unlike the Rajapaksas, he has little support beyond wealthy urban voters.