Video Credit: Reuters

Sri Lanka’s lawmakers elected Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe as the new president on Wednesday, to lead the country out of the acute economic crisis.

Wickremesinghe, a six-time prime minister, replaces Gotabaya Rajapaksa who last week fled the country, which was rocked by months of protests.

Here’s look at Wickremesinghe, his task ahead, and what his election means for Sri Lanka.

Comment: Wickremesinghe faces a Herculean task

Sadiq Shaban, Opinion Editor

Six-time Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe, who has been elected new president of Sri Lanka, faces the arduous task of healing the island nation.

A country of nearly 22 million, Sri Lanka witnessed economic collapse and months of mass protests. History has now given Wickremesinghe, a seasoned politician from a privileged background, an opportunity to lead his nation out of the political and financial morass and restore public order.

A political heavyweight, he has been in Sri Lankan politics for over 45 years and has run for the presidency twice before. Now that he has become president, will he succeed? That is tough to answer. It may be premature to speculate on the direction Wickremesinghe will take Sri Lanka, but the challenges he faces are monumental. His predecessor, Gotabaya Rajapaksa, resigned following massive public outrage and continued protests over the 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 to everyone, including the opposition, to work with him for the good of Sri Lanka.

But good intentions and sober words 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 to run 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 President Wickremesinghe’s political and economic expertise might help. Sri Lanka watchers are confident that he may be most qualified for the top job in the current scenario — someone with the required experience and efficiency to guide the country through its worst political and economic crisis in history.

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 in restoring political stability.

The president also needs to hold people accountable and get things done. Only then will he win the trust of a sceptical public — some of whom are wary of Wickremesinghe’s close links with the Rajapaksa family.

While the fear of further unrest and mass protests loom in Sri Lanka, the new president has tailwinds. His robust economic credentials, capacity to provide solutions and international relations will surely help.

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 set to shepherd his island nation during its most difficult and trying times.

Ranil Wickremesinghe
Ranil Wickremesinghe takes oath as president in Colombo, Sri Lanka, on July 20, 2022. Parliament Speaker Mahinda Yapa Abeywardena accepted the resignation sent by President Gotabaya Rajapaksa. Image Credit: ANI

Wickremesinghe: A remarkable rise to power

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 that earned him the nickname “the fox”, should count in his favour as he seeks a way out of Sri Lanka’s devastating economic crisis.

Wickremesinghe has also recently negotiated with the International Monetary Fund (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.

Hundreds of thousands of demonstrators took to the streets earlier this month to vent their fury at soaring inflation, shortages of fuel and other vital goods, regular power blackouts and what they see as corruption among the ruling elite.

While the focus of their ire was Rajapaksa, a member of the country’s most powerful political dynasty before the crisis who fled the country for Singapore, they also demanded that Wickremesinghe stand down - something he refused to do.

Wickremesinghe’s victory in parliament came after he secured the backing of many within the main party, Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP), that is dominated by the Rajapaksa family.

He took over as prime minister in May after the former president’s elder brother, Mahinda Rajapaksa, quit from 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.

Ranil Wickremesinghe
Sri Lanka’s President Ranil Wickremesinghe faces a monumental task as the the island nation of 22 million people has suffered months of blackouts as well as acute food, fuel and medicine shortages. Image Credit: AP

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 - although that hasn’t stopped him from repeatedly finding a way back to the premiership.

On July 9, Wickremesinghe announced that he was willing to step down as prime minister as protesters swarmed through central Colombo and set a part of his personal residence ablaze.

An economic liberal who has experience of dealing with the IMF from his previous tenure, Wickremesinghe has also built relationships with China and India, the Asian giants that have long jostled for influence over the Indian Ocean island.

Critics blame him for stalling multiple investigations against the Rajapaksa family, including on human rights and corruption allegations - an accusation he has denied.

Wickremesinghe’s refusal to relinquish party leadership led to the formation of the Samagi Jana Balawegaya (SJB), whose leader Sajith Premadasa was also a presidential contender.

As parliament met to finalise nominees for the post on Tuesday, Premadasa abruptly dropped out of the race and announced he would support Alahapperuma. Ultimately it was not enough to sway the vote.

“Politics is more than chess,” Wickremesinghe said in a television interview in 2014.

“It’s teamwork like cricket. It is how you must have the stamina for a marathon. It’s a hard game like rugger and it is a bloodsport like boxing.”

Sri Lanka protest
Demonstrators protesting against the newly elected President Ranil Wickremesinghe march to the President's Office in Colombo, Sri Lanka, on July 20, 2022. Wickremesinghe’s elevation as president could reignite street protests in the bankrupt nation and scuttle bailout talks with the International Monetary Fund. Image Credit: Bloomberg

Can Wickremesinghe save Sri Lanka from the crisis?

In his acceptance speech after his election as president, Ranil Wickremesinghe urged all parties to sink their differences and join him in pulling the country out of its worst economic crisis since independence from Britain in 1948.

AFP looks at how the bankrupt South Asian nation's economy collapsed, and what could come next as the seasoned Wickremesinghe inherits the complicated, corrupt and often violent political system.

How bad are things in Sri Lanka?

The UN has warned that Sri Lanka is heading for a humanitarian catastrophe with months of food, fuel and medicines shortages beginning to bite.

More than five out of every six families are eating less food, according to the World Food Programme, while schools and non-essential government institutions are closed for weeks to reduce commuting and save fuel.

Motorists queue for hours on the rare occasion petrol or diesel are available, and the country is enduring lengthy power cuts as the government has no money to import oil for generators.

Even according to official figures, inflation has crossed 50 per cent.

The coronavirus pandemic devastated both tourism and overseas remittances, two of the country's economic mainstays, with problems exacerbated by policy blunders.

More than half of the country's crops failed after Gotabaya Rajapaksa banned agrochemical imports last year. The ban was lifted after six months, but fertiliser is yet to return.

Sri Lanka declared itself bankrupt in mid-April when the government defaulted on its $51 billion foreign debt.

What will Wickremesinghe do?

The pro-West Wickremesinghe has already begun talks with the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and is banking on bilateral aid from Japan, China and India to tide over till a bailout is secured.

While an agreement with the IMF may be months away, Wickremesinghe has said he wants to unveil a new budget for 2022 in August as allocations made last year were totally out of whack.

"The data in the budget for 2022 by the previous government is not credible," Wickremesinghe told parliament earlier this month.

The debt statistics may also have been understated, he added, calling for urgent financial reforms.

He wants to sell off loss-making state enterprises such as the national carrier Sri Lankan Airlines - which lost nearly $700 million in the first four months of this year alone and has accumulated debts of more than $2 billion.

What is the status of IMF talks?

Despite their differences, Sri Lanka's political parties are united in their support for ongoing talks with the IMF.

Wickremesinghe will appoint a new prime minister who is expected to follow his free-market economic policies and carry out painful reforms.

Some politicians have bitterly opposed harsh IMF prescriptions to cut subsidies and raise taxes, but main political leaders agree that Sri Lanka should bite the bullet and deal with the international lender.

The political crisis interrupted the negotiations, and the IMF said last week that it hoped the unrest would be resolved soon so they could resume.

But no political party in the current parliament has a clear majority.

What will happen to the protest movement?

The mass protest movement that began in April and climaxed with Rajapaksa's expulsion from his palace earlier this month could spell trouble for Wickremesinghe.

The protesters also oppose Wickremesinghe, seeing him as a proxy of the disgraced Rajapaksa clan.

He has declared a state of emergency and drawn a distinction between "protesters" and "rioters", vowing to take a tough line against troublemakers.

For their part, the protesters have vowed to maintain their efforts to force Wickremesinghe from office, but most admit that they have run out of steam and public support was waning.

When university students at the forefront of the struggle called for a march in Colombo Tuesday, fewer than 1,000 people turned up, with police estimating the numbers at only a few hundred.

A campaign to surround the national parliament and block Wednesday's vote also fizzled out as no one turned up.

"We supported the struggle, but after getting rid of the Rajapaksa family there is no point in continuing it and causing disruptions," a doctor at the national hospital told AFP, asking not to be named.

Ranil Wickremesinghe
Sri Lanka's newly elected president Ranil Wickremesinghe addresses the media during a visit to the Gangaramaya Buddhist temple in Colombo on July 20, 2022. He vowed to take tough action against anyone resorting to what he called the undemocratic means that led to his predecessor's ouster. Image Credit: AFP

How the Sri Lankan crisis unfolded

April 1: State of emergency

Rajapaksa declares a state of emergency after clashes between police and hundreds of demonstrators demanding his resignation outside his residence in the capital Colombo.

April 3: Cabinet resigns

Most of the cabinet resigns at a late-night meeting, leaving Rajapaksa and his brother Mahinda — the prime minister — isolated. The central bank governor resigns a day later.

April 5: Loses majority

Finance minister Ali Sabry resigns just a day after being appointed. The president then loses his parliamentary majority as former allies urge him to quit. He lifts the state of emergency.

April 12: Foreign debt default

The government announces it is defaulting on its foreign debt of $51 billion.

April 19: First casualty

Police kill a protester, the first casualty after several weeks of anti-government protests. The next day, the IMF says it has asked Sri Lanka to restructure its colossal external debt before a rescue package can be agreed upon.

May 9: Day of violence

A mob of government loyalists bussed in from the countryside attacks peaceful protesters camped outside the president's office. Nine people are killed and hundreds more injured in reprisal attacks.

Mahinda Rajapaksa resigns as prime minister and has to be rescued by troops after thousands of protesters storm his Colombo residence. He is replaced by Ranil Wickremesinghe, a political veteran who is also deeply unpopular among the protesters.

May 10: Shoot-to-kill orders

The defence ministry orders troops to shoot on sight anyone involved in looting or "causing harm to life".

June 10: 'Humanitarian emergency'

The United Nations warns that Sri Lanka is facing a dire humanitarian crisis, with millions already in need of aid. More than three-quarters of the population had reduced their food intake due to severe food shortages, it says.

July 9: President's home stormed

Rajapaksa flees his official residence in Colombo with the assistance of troops, shortly before demonstrators storm the compound. Wickremesinghe's residence is torched.

July 13: President flees country

Rajapaksa flies to the Maldives on a military aircraft, accompanied by his wife and two bodyguards. Six-time premier Wickremesinghe is appointed as acting president. The government declares a state of emergency.

July 14: Rajapaksa resigns

Protesters announce they will end their occupation of official buildings. Rajapaksa leaves the Maldives for Singapore. On arrival, he emails his resignation as president to the parliamentary speaker.

July 18: Emergency renewed

Wickremesinghe renews the state of emergency.

July 20: Wickremesinghe is president

Ranil Wickremesinghe, the law-and-order candidate, beats two opponents to be elected president by parliament. He will serve out the remainder of Rajapaksa's term, which expires in November 2024.

Source: AFP