In a 2014 interview with the television channel Newsfirst, the then leader of the opposition in the Sri Lankan parliament, Ranil Wickremesinghe, described what he saw as the source of a politician’s strength. “One is the electoral strength that the people give you,” he said. “Other is the strength in your own belief. And the strength to go through the bad times. Politics consists not only of good times, but also bad times, and how you survive it.”
It was not the best time in Wickremesinghe’s career. He had served twice as Sri Lanka’s prime minister, in the early 1990s and in the early 2000s. But in 2004, the United National Party, or UNP, which he led, lost the parliamentary elections to its main rival, the Sri Lanka Freedom Party, or the SLFP. The next year, Wickremesinghe stood for president, the country’s most powerful office, but lost to the SLFP’s Mahinda Rajapaksa by a slender margin of around 180,000 votes, less than 2 percent of the total vote. As Rajapaksa dominated the national stage over the next decade, many believed that Wickremesinghe’s time in politics was effectively over.
Today, however, it appears that his “strength to go through the bad times” has served Wickremesinghe well, as he settles into the premiership for the fourth time after leading his party to victory in parliamentary elections in August. His return to prominence follows some of the most tumultuous years in the country’s history, in which President Rajapaksa led a brutal military campaign to crush the separatist Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam. Wickremesinghe largely waited out this turmoil. Then, this year, along with the SLFP’s Chandrika Bandarnaike Kumaratunga and Maithripala Sirisena, Wickremesinghe scripted a revival that was a remarkable demonstration in the craft of political survival.