Sri Lanka’s New President: More of the Same?

Passing the baton . . .

On Wednesday, Sri Lanka’s parliament elected Ranil Wickremesinghe as the country’s next president. The six-time prime minister had already become the acting president after former President Gotabaya Rajapaksa fled to Singapore and resigned following months of mass protests over his mismanagement of the economy. Wickremesinghe’s close connection to the powerful dynastic Rajapaksa family helped him easily win the parliamentary election despite being from a different party. Meanwhile, the public views him as part of the old guard rather than a symbol of the dramatic political and economic reform they demand. Protesters quickly gathered in the capital city of Colombo shortly after the results were announced and called for his resignation.

Who is Wickremesinghe?

A 73-year-old trained lawyer, Wickremesinghe entered politics in 1977. A six-time prime minister, he served two long stints as opposition leader and made two failed attempts to gain the presidency. Following his party’s loss of the 2019 presidential election to Gotabaya Rajapaksa, he resigned as prime minister, and his once dominant political party, the United National Party, fell apart. He then sat in relative obscurity as his party’s only member of parliament until his quick rise earlier this year when former President Rajapaksa appointed him as prime minister amid public protest against the president, his family, and the country’s economic crisis. His ability to keep coming back, despite never having finished a full term in office, led to his nickname, ‘the fox.’

On the horizon . . .

It will be no small task for Wickremesinghe to stop the further collapse of Sri Lanka’s economy and get it back on track while dealing with political instability and a deeply opposed public. One of his first moves as acting president on July 13 was declaring a country-wide state of emergency and instructing a new committee headed by the military to do whatever was necessary to restore public order. Shortly after that, thousands of protesters stormed his office. With a public so discontented, we’ll be watching to see if he can restore his image as an economic reformer and internationalist, negotiate with the IMF, and use his international relationships with Japan, the U.S., India, China, the EU and others to help ease the country’s economic woes and deal with fuel and food shortages.