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Ranil Wickremesinghe, who has just made another comeback, looks ahead

December 22, 2018 07:32 pm | Updated 09:04 pm IST

Ranil Wickremesinghe.

Ranil Wickremesinghe.

On December 16, after two months of political turbulence in Sri Lanka’s post-war years, Ranil Wickremesinghe was reinstated as Prime Minister, for the fifth time. When Mr. Wickremesinghe entered Parliament in 1977, he was barely 28. In the four decades since, Mr. Wickremesinghe has risen to become one of the most important leaders in the island’s southern polity, serving as Prime Minister four times before his recent, controversial ousting.

What is his political standing?

To many in Sri Lanka, Mr. Wickremesinghe, who hails from a privileged and influential family, represents the quintessential “Colombo elite.” Widely perceived as a pro-West liberal, he has been staunchly wedded to the free-market economic ideology that his uncle and United National Party (UNP) icon J. R. Jayewardene introduced in 1977. He has held a firm grip on the UNP’s leadership since 1994, despite occasional signs of dissent.

Why the recent crisis?

Nearly four years after he formed a unity government with President Maithripala Sirisena, the two leaders appeared to be on a collision course. In a shock move on October 26, Mr. Sirisena fired Mr. Wickremesinghe and appointed former President Mahinda Rajapaksa in his place, sparking concern over the constitutional validity of his arbitrary decision. Seven weeks, many failed political manoeuvres and multiple legal blows later, Mr. Sirisena reinstated Mr. Wickremesinghe, despite an earlier statement that he would not work with him “ever.” With 117 members in the 225-member House backing Mr. Wickremesinghe — including a critical bloc of 14 Tamil MPs — the ousted Prime Minister made a comeback, forming a government with legislators from his United National Front alone.

Is the power struggle over?

Given the complex turn of events culminating in his reinstatement, the power struggle between him and the President is far from over. It remains to be seen how the two leaders reconcile their differences to forge a working relationship. While Mr. Sirisena’s recent actions drew sharp criticism over the questionable use of his executive powers, Mr. Wickremesinghe’s party remains tainted by a massive bond scam at the Central Bank that is said to have cost the country’s public institutions several millions. While Sri Lankans are hoping for stability and some respite from soaring living costs in the wake of falling, drought-affected production and precarious livelihoods, the Tamil minority, in particular, will expect action on the pending promises with regard to post-war reconciliation and a political solution. The Tamil leadership expects his government to expedite the drafting of a new Constitution that has been on the back-burner.

Will it impact minorities?

Though Mr. Wickremesinghe is considered more pro-devolution than many other national leaders, barring former President Chandrika Kumaratunga, his attempts at historic peace talks with the LTTE in 2002-03 cost him politically. The Tamils, especially those supporting the rebel Tigers, felt his efforts were aimed more at isolating the LTTE internationally than sharing power, while many Sinhalese accused him of entering into “a deal with separatists.” Over the last few years, though, Tamil and Muslim minorities have preferred Mr. Wickremesinghe to Mr. Rajapaksa.

What next for him?

In his long political career, Mr. Wickremesinghe won a decisive mandate only twice — the general elections in 2001 and 2015. While he has harboured presidential aspirations for some time, he lost in contests against Ms. Kumaratunga in 1999 and Mr. Rajapaksa in 2005. He did not contest in 2010 and 2015. Even as some within the UNP push for a leadership change, Mr. Wickremesinghe has in the past hinted at a likely transition in 2030. Meanwhile, it is unclear if he will contest the parliamentary election next year, or stake claim to the presidency yet again.

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