Sri Lankan parliament has elected six-time Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe as the country’s new President. A political heavy-weight, he has been in Sri Lankan politics for over 45 years, has run for the presidency twice before.
The new President now faces the arduous, and some would say impossible task of healing the island nation.
Sri Lanka, a country of nearly 22 million, witnessed economic collapse and months of mass protests. History has now given Wickre-mesinghe, a seasoned politician from a privileged background, an opportunity to lead his nation out of the political and financial morass and restore public order.
Will he succeed? That is a hard one to answer. It may be a bit premature to speculate on the direction Wickremesinghe will take Sri Lanka in but the challenges he faces are monumental. His predecessor, Gotabaya Rajapaksa resigned following massive public out-rage and continued protests over economic crisis.
Starting on an optimistic message, the new President, known for his affable manner and tendency to take people along, declared, “Our divisions are now over”. He appealed everyone, including the political opposition to work with him for the good of Sri Lanka.
But good intentions and sober words alone won’t help the country. To say that Sri Lanka is struggling would be an understatement. The country owes more than $50 billion to foreign lenders.
There is not enough fuel for essential services like buses, trains and ambulances and the schools are closed. Colombo cannot afford to pay for imports of staple foods and fuel, leading to acute shortages and very high prices.
It is here that the President Wickremesinghe’s political and economic expertise might help. Sri Lanka watchers are confident that in the current scenario, he may be most qualified for the top job — someone with the required experience and efficiency to guide the country through its worst political and economic crisis in history.
Given his vast political networking and global connections, Wickremesinghe’s first job should be to negotiate an effective and critical bailout from the International Monetary Fund (IMF). He has been involved in these talks so far. A good deal from the IMF will go a long way to restore political stability in Sri Lanka.
The President also needs to hold people accountable and get things done. Only then will he win the trust of a sceptical pubic -- some of whom are wary of Wickremesinghe’s close links with the Rajapaksa family.
While the fear of further unrest and mass protests loom large in Sri Lanka, the new President has tailwinds going for him -- his robust economic credentials, capacity to provide solutions and a command in international cooperation.
That is not to say that Wickremesinghe will not face challenges. There have been demonstrations during recent days calling on the President to step down, as many view him as part of the old political elite.
But over the years Wickremesinghe has developed a cred as a survivor. Holding his ground, he looks all set to shepherd his island nation during its most difficult and trying times.