Sri Lanka’s prime minister, who once survived a suicide attack and rose in the ranks when his colleagues were assassinated, now faces a bitter power struggle.
Ranil Wickremesinghe, 69, has once again been sworn in as Sri Lanka’s prime minister following weeks of political uncertainty that had threatened to undermine the country’s economy, which is currently reeling under significant foreign debts.
It is the fourth time the leader of the United National Party (UNP) has ascended to the office of prime minister in a 40-year political career which has seen him escape a suicide attack by separatists and rise in the ranks when colleagues were assassinated.
A lawyer by profession, Wickremesinghe comes from an affluent business family which used to own newspapers. His uncle, Junius Jayewardene, served as Sri Lanka’s president for more than a decade, famously amending the constitution to give more powers to the office of the president.
It was during Jayewardene’s tenure, in 1977, that a young Wickremesinghe entered parliament for the first time. His rise was swift from then on, becoming the youngest cabinet minister in the country when he was made Minister of Youth Affairs and Employment.
He was continuously re-elected to parliament and in 1989 was nominated as the leader of the house, making him the government’s top MP in the parliament.
The separatist Tamil Tiger movement played a crucial role in Wickremesinghe’s political career for various reasons.
He became prime minister for the first time in May, 1993, after a Tamil Tiger suicide bomber assassinated President Ranasinghe Premadasa and the then Prime Minister D.B. Wijetunga had to take over as acting president.
That 16-month stint ended a year later when his party was defeated by the opposition People’s Alliance.
UNP at the time was led by a much-respected politician, Gamini Dissanayake, who was killed in a bomb blast for which Tamil Tiger separatists claimed responsibility. Wickremesinghe took over the reins of UNP and has led the party ever since.
He was prime minister for the second time from 2002 to 2004, a period that saw intense efforts to bring the separatists to the negotiating table. Some nationalists even accused him of being too lenient on a group that was widely seen as a threat to Sri Lanka’s sovereignty.
It was one of the reasons behind the dissolution of his government in 2004 by President Chandrika Kumaratunga, leader of the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP).
The two didn’t see eye-to-eye.
Wickremesinghe was then narrowly defeated by Mahinda Rajapaksa in the 2005 presidential elections.
It was during the decade-long rule of Rajapaksa that Sri Lanka’s 30-year-long war with the Tamil Tigers came to an end. But that left the country bruised and the initial euphoria around the economic boom was marred by allegations of corruption.
Wickremesinghe once again took over the office of prime minister after his party won the 2015 parliamentary elections and he formed a government with help of President Maithripala Sirisena, who had ousted Rajapaksa from his own party earlier that year.
However, a treasury bond scandal which cost the country’s exchequer millions of dollars dealt a blow to Wickremesinghe’s credibility.
The former governor of Sri Lanka’s central bank, Arjuna Mahendran, who was allegedly behind the scheme, was personally appointed by Wickremesinghe.
An official enquiry found that Wickremesinghe had done little to hold Mahendran accountable, much to the public’s chagrin.
In October, 2018, Sirisena had dismissed Wickremesinghe, his government and cabinet members, bringing the government machinery to a near-standstill.
The political impasse saw Sirisena appointing Rajapaksa as the new prime minister. But the move was thwarted by the country’s highest court and the majority of the lawmakers who refused to support it.
Which is how Wickremesinghe came to be reinstated over the weekend.