Ranil Wickremesinghe: Here is the political journey of the politician known for far-sighted policies
Colombo, May 12: Sri Lanka's new Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe, a lawyer-turned politician who has been in Parliament for 45 years, has made a remarkable come back nearly two years after his United National Party (UNP) was routed and failed to win a single seat in the general election held in August 2020.
The 73-year-old leader, who is believed to be close to India, was appointed as the 26th prime minister of Sri Lanka by President Gotabaya Rajapaksa amidst the worst economic crisis in the country.
Who is Ranil Wickremesinghe?
Born in 1949 after Sri Lanka gained independence from the British, Wickremesinghe was elected to Parliament in 1977 at the age of 28, having worked in the Youth League of the United National Party (UNP) from his university days. As the youngest minister in Sri Lanka at the time, he held the post of Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs under President Jayewardene.
He was later appointed to the Cabinet as the Minister of Youth Affairs and Employment. He has also held the portfolio of Education. Then in 1989, as a seasoned legislator, he was made the Leader of the House under President Premadasa. He has also served as the Minister of Industries, Science and Technology.
He is widely accepted in political circles as a man who could manage the economy with far-sighted policies. His appointment fills the void of a leadership as Sri Lanka was without a government since Monday when Gotabaya's elder brother and prime minister Mahinda Rajapaksa resigned after violent protests following an attack on the anti-government protesters by his supporters.
Wickremesinghe, who is perceived as the Sri Lankan politician who could command international cooperation, has held many important posts during his political career spanning four and half decades. He built a personal rapport with Sri Lanka's immediate neighbour India and visited the country on four occasions - October 2016, April 2017, November 2017 and October 2018 - during his previous term as the prime minister. During the same period, Prime Minister Narendra Modi made two visits to Sri Lankan and he also responded to a personal request from Wickremesinghe to help the island nation set up the 1990 ambulance system - a free health care service which became immensely helpful during Covid 19.
Despite the opposition from then President Maithripala Sirisena, Wickremesinghe had backed the deal with India on the Colombo port's eastern terminal which the Rajapsksas reneged in 2020. His party UNP, the oldest party in the country, had failed to win a single seat in 2020 parliamentary polls.
He was unseated for the first time since 1977 but later found his way to Parliament through the sole national list allocated to the UNP on the basis of cumulative national vote. His deputy Sajith Premadasa had led the breakaway Samagi Jana Balawegaya (SJB) and became the main Opposition.
Wickremesinghe, the nephew of Sri Lanka's first executive president Junius Jayewardene, was first appointed Prime Minister from 1993-1994 after the assassination of President Ranasinghe Premadasa. He was also elected as the Prime Minister from 2001-2004 when the United National Front Government won the general elections in 2001. But he lost power in 2004, after Chandrika Kumaratunga called early elections.
During his term as Prime Minister, he began peace talks with the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), even offering a power-sharing deal. Both Kumaratunga and Mahinda Rajapaksa had accused him of being too lenient with LTTE and of offering them too many concessions. Wickremesinghe had handed a shock defeat to Mahinda Rajapaksa in 2015 polls and led a minority government.
When he assumed the Prime Minister's office for the third time in 2015, he pledged to devolve power to the country's Tamil minority, in a step towards national reconciliation six years after a military offensive crushed the LTTE. In 2018, then President Sirisena sacked Prime Minister Wickremesinghe and appointed Mahinda Rajapaksa as the new premier.
Sirisena's move triggered a constitutional crisis in the country. However, a Supreme court verdict forced President Sirisena to reinstate Wickremesinghe, ending Rajapaksa's brief regime.