Crown of Thorns: PM Ranil Wickremesinghe faces a mammoth challenge ahead!

Ranil Wickremesinghe has been sworn in as Sri Lanka’s new prime minister amid ongoing protests over the government’s failure to deal with the severe economic crisis. President Gotabaya rajapaksa administered the oath of office to him on Thursday (May 12) evening. He became prime minister for the sixth time. Ranil Wickremesinghe comes from a political family like many other leaders in South Asia. His uncle, Junis Jayawardene, was president of Sri Lanka for more than a decade. He entered politics in the mid-1970s. He was first elected a member of parliament in 1977. The president at that time was Junis Jayawardene. He became the youngest minister in that government. 

Journey as a Prime Minister  

The then President Ranasinghe Premadasa was killed in a bomb attack by Tamil Tiger guerrillas during the decades-long civil war in Sri Lanka. In 1993, Wickremesinghe was appointed prime minister for the first time. Wickremesinghe was last the Prime Minister of Sri Lanka in 2018. At that time, his childhood friend Arjuna Mahendran, the governor of the country’s central bank, was accused of billions of dollars in irregularities. 

Ranil Wickremesinghe has previously served as the country’s prime minister five times. But has never completed his term. He served as the Prime Minister of Sri Lanka from 1993-1994, 2001-2004, 2015-2015 (100 days), 2015-2018 and 2018-2019 and served as leader of opposition from 1994-2001 and 2004-2015.

Even before the start of the week, it was believed that the 73-year-old politician’s career was in the final stages. But it was only after this that he agreed to manage a consensus administration and help the South Asian island nation emerge from the crippling economic crisis. 

Reason Behind Wickremesinghe’s reinstation

Mahinda Rajapakse was forced to resign from the post of Prime Minister of Sri Lanka in the face of mass opposition within the country. But after he resigned, the main opposition party turned down the offer to form the government. They didn’t want to risk this difficult situation. Nor did the king want to take responsibility for the mess he had created. As a result, only Ranil Wickremesinghe was the alternative. 

The 73-year-old UNP leader has been in parliament for 45 years. He has extensive international connections and is considered a skilled negotiator. He is seen as a supporter of the pro-Western free market economy and seen as a reformist.

Wickremesinghe has held many important posts during his political career spanning four and half decades.

Diplomatic sources also claimed that Ranil’s past relations with New Delhi were good. As a result, after he became prime minister, South Block also extended a helping hand. 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 Lanka and he also responded to a personal request from Ranil Wickremesinghe to help the island nation set up the 1990 ambulance system – a free health care service which became immensely helpful during Covid 19.

Hurddles ahead for Wickremesinghe

Wickremesinghe’s political party is called the United National Party. He is the only MP from his party in the 225-seat parliament. Under his leadership, it is a big challenge to form a cabinet now by proving its majority in parliament.

The veteran leader has been accused of backing the Rajapaksas and failing to act against members of the previous regime, who were accused of corruption. He is seen as someone who is close to the family and experts believe he has been picked because he would be likely to guarantee their security and any safe passage they might request. 

Lankans are not too pleased. Opposition politicians and religious leaders objected to Wickremesinghe’s appointment. They claimed, Wickremesinghe was aimed more at protecting the president and his family from public anger over corruption allegations and his role in the economic crisis than it was at solving the country’s problems. 

Buddhist and Catholic clergy also objected to Wickremesinghe’s selection. Catholic Archbishop of Colombo Cardinal Malcolm Ranjith called for ‘a complete change of the system’ if Sri Lanka needed to emerge from the crisis.

Sajith Premadasa was offered the position of the prime minister before Wickremesinghe but turned it down saying he would not step up as long as Gotabaya continued as president.

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