Ranil Wickramesinghe, 65, finds himself leading a Sri Lankan ministry under an Executive President again. This is his third stint as Prime Minister, having served earlier in 1993-94 and 2001-04. As he was sworn in on Friday evening, Mr. Wickramasinghe must be ruing the fact that he has been unable to reach the country’s highest office despite being the leader of the principal opposition party for many years. For the second successive presidential election, his right-wing United National Party was forced to support a candidate from outside its own ranks. In 2010, it was retired army general Sarath Fonseka and this time it was Maithripala Sirisena of the rival Sri Lanka Freedom Party.
Mr. Wickramasinghe has survived as his party chief despite his leadership being questioned or doubted on many occasions. He lost two successive presidential elections to Chandrika Kumaratunga (1999) and Mahinda Rajapaksa (2005) and the parliamentary elections in 2000 and 2004. However, in an intervening phase when the country appeared to have grown weary of the war, he won a crucial parliamentary election on a platform of peace and development in December 2001. He worked out a Norway-brokered ceasefire agreement in February 2002 with the LTTE on what was seen by Sinhala hardliners as being too liberal, but it won Mr. Wickramasinghe great goodwill in the international community.
This truce lasted on the field for over four years and on paper for six until persistent ceasefire violations broke out into all-out war under President Mahinda Rajapaksa. He was sacked by President Chandrika Kumaratunga for allegedly giving too much leeway to the LTTE, after his regime had held six rounds of peace talks across the globe.
Mr. Wickramasinghe could have won the 2005 presidential election, had the LTTE not called for a Tamil boycott, a factor that may have propelled Mr. Rajapaksa to the highest office and, ultimately, spelt doom for the Tigers four years later. The reason for the rebels working to defeat him was his achievement in putting together a security net for the peace process comprising key members of the international community including the United States, the European Union and India, an arrangement that the LTTE thought was a move to coerce it into giving up its separatist demand.
Seen as a leader close to India, Mr. Wickramasinghe’s presence in the government — also as the leader of the party which delivered a good amount of southern votes for Mr. Sirisena — will be a welcome sight for India, which is worried about the Chinese presence in Sri Lanka. Also, the business-friendly UNP leader is a strong proponent of closer trade ties with India. His role in putting together a common opposition alliance and engineering Mr. Rajapaksa’s defeat may raise his stature domestically too, and end the commonly held view that he loses more often than he wins.