Just as it became apparent on Wednesday that Sri Lanka’s President Gotabaya Rajapaksa was about to appoint Ranil Wickremesinghe as PM, in place of Mahinda Rajapaksa who resigned days earlier, an old video clip got widely shared on social media.
Clad in a back suit, a prim looking Mr. Wickremesinghe tells a journalist in a slow, considered manner: “Politics is more than chess, it is teamwork like cricket, you must have the stamina for a marathon, you must also remember it’s a hard game like rugger, and a blood sport like boxing.” It was just before the 2010 presidential election, in which he lost to Mr. Mahinda.
Five years later, he was back in power, cohabiting in a ‘national unity’ government with President Maithripala Sirisena, who controversially ousted him in 2018 and reinstated him, after a Supreme Court ruling.
The internal rift in their coalition, compounded by its many failures, of not prosecuting the Rajapaksas and their allies in alleged murder and corruption cases, and failing to prevent the Easter terror bombings of 2019 despite warnings, paved the way for the rise of Mr. Gotabaya, who handsomely won the 2019 presidential polls.
In the general elections the following year, the Rajapaksas’ ruling party, along with its allies, secured over 150 seats in the 225-member House. In the same election, Mr. Wickremesinghe’s United National Party (UNP), the country’s oldest political party, was wiped out. Contesting from his Colombo stronghold, he suffered a crushing defeat.
It was his first defeat since he entered Parliament 45 years ago. But for Sri Lanka’s proportional representation system, through which parties get a few seats based on the total votes they poll, Mr. Wickremesinghe would not have made to the legislature. It seemed like his political career was over.
But in less than a year after returning to Parliament, Mr. Wickremesinghe, 73, is Sri Lanka’s Prime Minister for the sixth time, although he has never completed a full term in office. From being the UNP’s lone MP, he has risen to Premiership in rather circumstances. Knowing how unpopular the Rajapaksa administration has become, and how difficult the PM’s job will be at such a time, government MPs have readily made way. Beleaguered President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, whose party secured a two-thirds majority in 2020, is now counting on Mr. Wickremesinghe to put the island’s battered economy on a path of recovery. The President’s political manoeuvre is one of many developments after a grave economic crisis hit Sri Lanka that has emptied its coffers and left people amid acute shortages and record inflation.
Meanwhile, the call for Mr. Gotabaya’s resignation remains loud and clear in street protests across the country, and in front of his sea-facing office in Colombo. Mr. Wickremesinghe’s appointment is hardly the solution that demonstrators want or are likely to accept.
As recently as March, Mr. Wickremesinghe said there was “no question” of him joining a national unity government. Two months later, he is struggling to put together a Cabinet and government. While ruling party MPs have promised to support him, all main opposition parties have refused to work with him or nominate members to the Cabinet. They term his appointment illegitimate, citing his poll defeat. Critics of Mr. Wickremesinghe and some protesters are outraged by the move. They call him a “deal maker” and accuse of him “protecting” the tainted Rajapaksas. A small section of the Colombo elite, however, feels some respite in his appointment. They approve of his known pro-West, pro-market policies, and hope his international outreach can bail the country out of the economic calamity. For a while, Mr. Wickremesinghe has been pushing greater regional cooperation, especially with greater trade interaction between south India and Sri Lanka.
Much of his international goodwill is from early 2002, when he worked out a Norway-brokered ceasefire agreement with the LTTE that hardline Sinhala Buddhists found to be “too liberal”. This was months after Mr. Wickremesinghe won a parliamentary election promising peace and development.
A lawyer by training, Mr. Wickremesinghe comes from a politically influential family. In his long career, he was rarely known to be a people’s man. During the island’s tumultuous 1970s and 1980s that saw two armed insurrections by Sinhalese youth led by the leftist Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna, the UNP was accused of grave rights abuses against dissidents. Mr. Wickremesinghe too was linked to some of the allegations. But in later years, he won the trust of many in Sri Lanka’s civil society and fashioned himself as the liberal democratic alternative to the conservative, Sinhala Buddhist nationalist Rajapaksa brand.
Today, ironically, the Rajapaksas need him more than he needs the Rajapaksas. And Mr. Wickremesinghe is back in the game. As Sri Lanka descends into further economic chaos, it will soon be known if the political class will choose team play, a hard game, or blood sport.