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Sri Lanka’s 5-Time PM: Why Ranil Wickremesinghe Is ‘Man of the Hour’

Wickremesinghe has been sworn into the same office five times, and not once did he complete a five-year term.

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Opinion
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Sri Lanka’s 5-Time PM: Why Ranil Wickremesinghe Is ‘Man of the Hour’
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At 73, Sri Lanka’s new Prime Minister, Ranil Wickremesinghe, holds an unsteady record. He has been sworn into the same office five times in the past, and not once did he complete a five-year term. This time around, by the very design of his induction, like his first two appointments in the nineties – but for totally acceptable reasons back then – he is not expected to have a five-year term as Prime Minister even if early elections are not held, as President Gotabaya had promised the nation ahead of inducting Wickremesinghe.

How Ranil Shot Himself In the Foot

On the last two prime ministerial outings, when he had the occasion and opportunity to complete five-year terms, Wickremesinghe adventurously shot himself in the foot, knowing full well the mood, method and mechanism available to the President of the day.

Having got elected Prime Minister in 2001, as the head of the United National Party (UNP), the nation’s ‘Grand old Party’, Ranil, as is he is popularly known, should have studied the traditional SLFP rival, President Chandrika Bandaranaike-Kumaratunga (CBK), better. He did not do so and paid a price, all around.

First, under powers available to her under the Constitution, Chandrika sacked Ranil’s government in 2004, forcing Parliament elections a year ahead of schedule. The UNP lost and the SLFP returned with a majority in Parliament, for one-time Ports Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa to become Prime Minister. This clearly showed that Ranil’s Machiavellian skills and his decision to cut off the President, who was also the Supreme Commander of the Armed Forces, for negotiating a ceasefire agreement (CFA) with the LTTE using Norwegian facilitation did not have popular support, especially among the majority Sinhala-Buddhist population.

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Manipulator, But…

Then came the 2005 presidential elections. As a UNP leader who had manipulated his way to curb every kind of effective rebellion against his leadership, Ranil got himself named as the presidential candidate of the party-led front. Pitted against him was SLFP’s incumbent Prime Minister, Mahinda Rajapaksa, who had acquired – rather inherited – the image of a ‘Sinhala-Buddhist majoritarian nationalist’.

This became possible after Chandrika inducted the left-leaning Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) into her United People’s Freedom Alliance (UPFA) in the 2001 elections to help the once-militant outfit enter the mainstream. Founded in 1965, the JVP had fought two insurgencies against the Sri Lankan State. The government neutralised the first one in 1971 with logistics support from the Indian Air Force (IAF). Chandrika’s mother, Sirimavo Bandaranaike, was Prime Minister at the time, under the prevailing parliamentary scheme.

The second insurgency was anti-India, following the Indo-Sri Lanka Accord (IPKF), and was fought coincidentally in 1987-89. The JVP is believed to have lost close to 100,000 cadres.

Ranil’s folly in doing business with the LTTE had extracted a price when the group forced Tamil voters to boycott the 2005 presidential polls, as they otherwise were thought to be pro-Ranil, or anti-Rajapaksa, even before they had got to know the latter enough to brand him thus. Mahinda won by the lowest victory margin in any presidential election since Executive Presidency was introduced in 1982.

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The LTTE Attack

Where in all this does Ranil’s ‘missed lesson’ appear? Contesting the presidency in 1995 as the incumbent Prime Minister, Chandrika recorded the highest-ever 62.28 per cent, which even incumbent Mahinda could not break, despite defeating the dreadful LTTE in the decades-old ethnic war. In 1995, Chandrika was the face of hope for a nation already reeling under the weight of internal contradictions, worsened by the unstoppable ethnic war. In her campaign speeches, Chandrika promised a fair deal, which the Sinhala-Buddhist majority did not actually oppose, showing that a majority of the community was not extremist but peace-loving, at least at that particular point – not earlier, not later.

The LTTE learnt its lesson, turned the Tamil people against the government, and by 1996, they loved to hate and curse Chandrika, the woman, the mother they had voted only a few months earlier. When Chandrika contested a second time, the LTTE actually tried to assassinate her at a campaign rally, just as they had assassinated a predecessor, Ranasinghe Premadasa, from Ranil’s UNP, at the May Day rally in 1993. Ranil himself escaped the LTTE’s attempt on his life once, but that was to come later.

Premadasa’s crime? He negotiated with the LTTE behind the back of the IPKF and the Indian government, when the two of them were helping him to defeat two militancy groups, which included the JVP. Premadasa also diverted India-supplied weapons for the Sri Lankan army to the LTTE, in order to fight the IPKF.

Chandrika had a providential escape but completely lost sight in one eye. The LTTE’s attempt on her life sealed the electoral fate of her opponent: Ranil Wickremesinghe of the UNP.

This also meant that CBK had a personal hurt when as Prime Minister, Ranil negotiated with the LTTE (2001-04), signed the CFA through Norway in 2002, and kept her out of all negotiation details.

Even Norwegians were reported to have been barred from briefing the President, though it was Chandrika who had invited them to play facilitator in LTTE negotiations. All this, when Chandrika as President was the Head of State, Head of Government, Head of Cabinet, and of course, the Supreme Commander of the Armed Forces. Under the Constitution, she was also her own Defence Minister.

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Giving Up on Aspirations

Ranil’s last chance (before the unexpected present one) came in 2015, when he strategised with one-time adversary Chandrika, among others, to defeat common rival and incumbent President Mahinda, who had sought a third term after amending the Constitution. In doing so, he had forgone his long-cherished presidential dreams to a common candidate, Maithripala Sirisena, a long-term political aide of the incumbent, who they all had wooed with the presidency offer.

Ranil had given up his presidential aspirations earlier in the post-war 2010 presidential polls in favour of wartime army commander Lt-Gen Sarath Fonseka, who has since been the nation’s only Field Marshal. There was some internal solace at the time as no one expected Mahinda to lose after annihilating the LTTE, but it did happen five years later in 2015.

No one also expected Fonseka to win, though he did give a tougher fight to the incumbent and his Supreme Commander until months earlier than what any full-time politician in his place could have done. Mahinda won by the second-highest 58-per cent vote share. Today, Fonseka is a parliamentarian belonging to the main Opposition Samagi Janatha Balawegaya (SJB), the majority breakaway party from the UNP parent.

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Twice In Five years

The last time Ranil was Prime Minister, it was under Maithripala Sirisena, whom he, in a way, had made President. Given the ideological differences and personal angularities, their honeymoon was not expected to last long. Ranil is an urban elite from a party that is right, but liberal in thought, word and deed. Maithri, with his rural Polonnaruwa background, had been with the left-of-centre SLFP rival all along.

One thing led to another, and in December 2018, the President sacked his Prime Minister and replaced him with a one-time leader, Mahinda Rajapaksa. So complete was the absence of communication and respect for protocol that Sirisena had stopped inviting his Prime Minister for the weekly meetings of the National Security Council (NSC).

All of this meant that the Prime Minister was not even in the know about the intelligence shared by the Indian neighbour on the imminent Easter blasts in 2019 before it became common knowledge.

The Sri Lankan Supreme Court would have none of it and restored Ranil to the office, indicating that a government’s majority could be proved or disproved only on the floor of Parliament. This meant that Ranil had to be sworn in a second time as Prime Minister during the very same term of Parliament, thus breaking his own prime ministerial career by a few weeks.

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Can Protesters Have Their Way?

Today, when street protesters, especially in the capital Colombo, demand that President Gotabaya leave, just as they had forced him to get his brother and Prime Minister Mahinda to submit his resignation (though unwillingly and under peculiar circumstances), the host of lawyer-professionals on their side would only have to read the Supreme Court’s verdict in the ‘Ranil case’. For the same reason, street protesters cannot have Ranil out if he is able to win the trust of Parliament – whatever the vote, whichever the parties supporting him.

Why, then, is Ranil being tom-tommed as the ‘man of the hour’ in crisis-ridden Sri Lanka, that, too, when he is not known to be a great economist who can be called in to save the day and beyond? Ranil has vast years of politico-administrative experience which few have had at that level. Truth be acknowledged, he also has greater exposure, and hence, acceptance – or, is it the other way round? – in the ‘international community’ (read: West) than any other Sri Lankan politician. The list starts with breakaway SJB Leader of the Opposition, Sajith Premadasa, who lost the presidency for the parent UNP in the 2019 elections and could not win the parliamentary election either only months later in 2020.

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Ranil's Is the Face That Sells

From the immediate perspective of President Gotabaya, Ranil’s face sells as much in western capitals as much as his and his ousted brother Mahinda’s doesn’t. After months of economic and forex crises, only the Indian neighbour has chipped in with all the help needed in the hour, day and weeks, thus far. China, supposedly the Rajapaksas’ pet friend, did give something, but is reported to have offered loans to repay the existing ones, without negotiating to re-schedule repayment.

Though there is opposition to Ranil joining the Gotabaya-led government and to Gotabaya inducting the sole representative of a one-MP party as Prime Minister, expectations are that the new face could help garner food and financial assistance from more nations than the Rajapaksas or anyone else in his place could have even hoped to attempt.

With the government having declared unilateral postponement of $51 billion external credit, due for repayment, Prime Minister Ranil’s magic is expected to work wonders in getting them rescheduled more easily.

Gotabaya has since appointed Ranil as his own Finance Minister, too, as was the case with Mahinda for a time. It means that Ranil will also head the government team to negotiate every credit and rescheduling terms with every other government, the International Monetary Fund (IMF), and the like. Already, he has reportedly mooted an aid consortium of friendly nations, as used to exist for the third world countries in the 20th century.

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Defending the Indefensible?

Yet, all of this is only after Ranil has won the confidence of the 225-member Parliament. The two votes this week are tantamount to a confidence vote in the government leadership (of President Gota, so to say). But it would be Ranil as Prime Minister who would be defending this government in Parliament, unless Gotabaya exercises the privilege of an ex-officio member without voting rights for responding to a pending no-confidence motion against him. There is then the Deputy Speaker’s election today, caused by the second resignation of the same man, who was re-elected after quitting once.

Ranil will have to first clear the twin votes in Parliament, then use his magic charm to pump in more food and fuel aid from all around, so as to stabilise availability and prices. This, in turn, could alone help smoothen ruffled sentiments, giving the politicos time to discuss the future of the Gotabaya leadership, the clipping of the Executive Presidency’s unlimited powers, early elections, and so on.

President Through Backdoor

But this would also give ‘Ranil & Co’, under the care of Gotabaya, space to plan long-term strategies for economic recovery and forex availability. Should the protesters still have their way and force Gotabaya to quit, Ranil as Prime Minister would become President, as the Constitution now provides.

And that and that alone could well be the only chance for him to occupy the Presidency, just as he has become Prime Minister for a sixth time without aspiring for it – with able management of the administration and economy, giving him an edge in future elections.

(The writer is a Policy Analyst & Commentator, based in Chennai, India. This is an opinion article and the views expressed are the author's own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)

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