Sri Lanka’s new Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe is anything but new

Mayank Chhaya-

The return of Ranil Wickremesinghe as a deeply embattled Sri Lanka’s prime minister is like pouring old wine in a new bottle, a sixth new bottle to be precise. It is for the sixth time that Wickremesinghe has risen to the position without once completing a full term.

However, what works for wine and aging does not necessarily work for politicians. Besides, Wickremesinghe is widely seen as chummy with the Rajapaksa family which has presided over the island nation’s destiny for some two decades and which now stands discredited and disgraced as the country has been pushed into economic ruin.

There are those in Colombo who believe that part of the reason why Wickremesinghe has been brought back is because he can guarantee that the Rajapaksa family does not come to any harm. Those who have participated in weeks-long protests did not expect that an old-timer, establishment figure would be brought back. Many of the protesters saw in the ferment the rise of a new youthful leadership which does not seem to have been the case if Wickremesinghe is any measure.

At the same time though independent observers in Colombo believe that Sri Lanka needs a calming influence at the time of a grave existential crisis; a figure who is able to reach out to allies such as India as well those in the West. Wickremesinghe has been known to maintain cordial relations within the foreign diplomatic community. Reuters quoted him as saying “We are facing a crisis, we have to get out of it.”  Asked whether there was a possible solution, he replied, “Absolutely.”

Wickremesinghe, who was first elected to parliament in 1977, is a lawyer by profession and comes from an affluent family. His rise through the United National Party (UNP) was swift when Ranasinghe Pramadasa was elected president in 1989. In 1994, after Gamini Dissanayake was assassinated by the separatist rebels of Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, Wickremesinghe became the leader of the UNP. It was in 1993 that he became the country’s prime minister ad lasted until 1994.

Wickremesinghe too survived an assassination attempt after a bomb went off at a political rally he was addressing. Within the UNP he did try to bring in discipline and weed out corrupt party members. It was a measure of his operating style that while on the one hand he tried to broaden the UNP’s base in rural Sri Lanka, on the other he experimented with different hairstyles as part of a personal makeover.

A particular low point for him came when in 2019 deadly Easter Sunday bombings in Colombo killed at least 250 people.

One significant part of the reason why Wickremesinghe’s return has made many seriously doubt if the state of affairs will change anytime soon is because he was viewed in 2015 as having shielded the Rajapaksa family after they lost power.

At this stage though Sri Lanka does not have much choice other than having an establishment figure like Wickremesinghe who can at least ensure a smooth transition. The current President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, a former army colonel, has two years left in his term. Given his military background, he has strong connections within the country’s armed forces which could be an asset for him during these harrowing times.

With his brother, Mahinda Rajapaksa, a former strongman president and most recent prime minister, now holed up inside a naval base along with his family after fleeing in the face of violent protests, for now at least the field is clear for Gotabaya Rajapaksa. For long how it will remain so is anybody’s guess.

In the meantime, Wickremesinghe has his task cut out to stem the economic rot and return the country to a semblance of normalcy where people have access to food, medicine as well essentials such as electricity.