Waiting Game

The return of Ranil Wickremesinghe

After a decade on the sidelines, Ranil Wickremesinghe began his fourth term as prime minister of Sri Lanka this year. ishara s kodikara / afp / getty images
01 October, 2015

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.

To track how power has shifted between these players in the last decade, it is useful to look at how Sri Lanka’s political system has changed over the years. Before 1978, the prime minister was the most powerful functionary in the Sri Lankan government. She or he served as the head of the government, and, along with the parliament, set the legislative agenda, decided key appointments and led policy-making.

In 1972, a new constitution introduced the post of president, which was at first largely ceremonial. But in 1978, the head of the UNP, JR Jayawardene, won a general election and amended the constitution to make the president the country’s pre-eminent functionary. He then assumed that post himself. The amendment effectively vested the president with the powers of the prime minister, and rendered that post largely nominal. It was a controversial move—initially, Jayawardene did not even have the full support of his own party to do this. Nevertheless, he pushed the change through, defining the direction of the country’s politics for the decades that followed.

Successive presidents, such as Ranasinghe Premadasa and Kumaratunga, made use of the new provisions, assigning powerful cabinet portfolios to themselves and asserting increasing control over the judiciary and bureaucracy, usually through favoured appointments. When he came to power, Rajapaksa went a step further and amended the constitution to concentrate even greater power in the post. Most significantly, in 2010, after leading his party to victory in parliamentary elections, he removed the existing two-term limit to any individual serving as president. With his confidence bolstered by his victory over the LTTE, he aimed to be the first person to serve three terms as the president of Sri Lanka.

Wickremesinghe appeared powerless to stop Rajapaksa. He was relegated to the sidelines of the country’s politics in the years that followed, as many key colleagues defected to the ruling alliance, won over by Rajapaksa’s offers of plum ministerial portfolios. A string of losses in provincial elections further sapped Wickremesinghe’s popularity.

In 2010, Rajapaksa called for snap presidential elections, a year before the expiration of his term. As the leader of the main opposition party, Wickremesinghe would have been his natural opponent. But, perhaps because of the recent electoral setbacks he had suffered, opposition parties jointly decided instead to nominate Sarath Fonseka, the military officer under whose leadership the armed forces had defeated the LTTE. As it happened, this worked in Wickremesinghe’s favour, by guarding him against the consequences of a loss. Indeed, with his popularity at an all-time high, Rajapaksa defeated Fonseka by 1.8 million votes, more than 10 percent of the total vote. When he then amended the constitution to allow himself to run for additional terms as president, Rajapaksa’s grip over the country’s politics appeared unshakeable.

But, as it turned out, Rajapaksa’s popularity would only decline from these heights. His government had been accused of military excesses since 2008, but these accusations gained greater momentum after 2010, as allegations of war crimes began to surface along with disturbing details of civilian deaths and thousands of disappearances. In 2012, a UN report estimated that 40,000 civilians died during the last phase of the war, and that human rights atrocities were committed by both sides. Rajapaksa’s government denied the charges and fought hard against multiple United Nations Human Rights Council resolutions that censured the country for its failure to address issues of human-rights violations and reconciliation after the war. (In September this year, a UN report called for a “hybrid court” of both international and local judges to be set up to investigate possible war crimes committed by both the Sri Lankan military and the LTTE, and provide redress to victims.)

Detractors also began to accuse Rajapaksa of promoting corruption and nepotism, citing the appointment of his three brothers to top posts in the government, and his son Namal’s election to the parliament, as evidence of family control. Towards the end of 2013, Rajapaksa also controversially impeached Chief Justice Shirani Bandaranaike, in a process that the UN slammed as “a calamitous setback forthe rule of law in Sri Lanka,” and was seen as further eroding the independence of the judiciary. Street marches erupted in Colombo to protest the impeachment, and Sri Lanka’s global reputation continued to wane.

The mounting dissatisfaction eventually wore down Rajapaksa’s gains from his war victory and the progress he had made on large-scale infrastructure projects, including highways, ports and a second international airport. An unexpectedly poor showing by the SLFP in 2014’s provincial elections made clear that there were cracks in his armour. Worried that his government was growing unpopular, Rajapaksa called for presidential elections at the end of 2014, two years early. He hoped to turn attention back to his own star personality, and away from issues of human rights and poor governance. He reasoned, presumably, that if he could reinforce his own position at the top for another term, parliament, provincial councils and local government bodies would fall into line.

Though Rajapaksa’s lustre was diminishing, Wickremesinghe still did not seem to present a credible threat to him as a presidential candidate. In an unexpected development, Kumaratunga, the former president, re-entered the political arena, and wooed away the SLFP’s Maithripala Sirisena, who was then serving as Rajapaksa’s health minister, and was also the party’s general secretary. While Wickremesinghe belonged to Colombo’s elite, and was primarily an English speaker, Sirisena, like Rajapaksa, was from rural Sri Lanka, and was most comfortable in Sinhalese. He was perceived as a nationalist like Rajapaksa, but one with a more moderate approach and greater humility. Sirisena appealed to a wider cross-section of voters, across religious and ethnic lines, and united anti-Rajapaksa civil-society groups, moderate Sinhalese voters and minority parties, which had not previously come together

As in 2010, Wickremesinghe took a back seat, and partnered with Kumaratunga to create an opposition alliance that fielded Sirisena as a presidential hopeful. He was careful, however, to stake out a share of future power. By the terms of the alliance, if Sirisena won, Wickremesinghe would be made prime minister for 100 days, after which parliamentary polls would be held. Two other commitments the leaders made had far-reaching implications for Sri Lanka: one, to reinstate the presidential two-term limit, which Rajapaksa had abolished; and the other, to eventually reassign the president’s executive powers back to the office of the prime minister.

Wickremesinghe’s political manoeuvring here was impeccable. Like with Fonseka earlier, backing Sirisena allowed him—and his party—to guard against the fallout of a possible Rajapaksa win. Sirisena’s pledge to transfer executive power to the prime minister, meanwhile, ensured that in case Rajapaksa was defeated, Wickremesinghe would go on to be a prime minister with considerably greater clout than his predecessors. Sirisena had also declared that his intention was only to serve a single term, making it seem unlikely that his political profile would rise to threaten Wickremesinghe’s future. Thus, Wickremesinghe was ensured great returns for himself if his bet paid off, but at the same time, remained relatively insulated from a possible loss.

On 9 January, Sirisena handed Rajapaksa a shock defeat in the presidential polls. He appointed Wickremesinghe prime minister that same day. Though this had been a campaign promise, it was controversial. It is the prerogative of the president to appoint a prime minister, but critics pointed out that Wickremesinghe’s party was a minority in the parliament, whereas the constitution specifies that the leader of the largest party in the parliament must hold the post of prime minister. Further, given that Sirisena had promised to abolish the executive powers of the presidency, his use of those very powers to elevate a minority leader was seen by some as hypocritical. But the move did not face any serious challenge, and the constitutional questions it raised remain unresolved.

In April, Sirisena and Wickremesinghe steered an amendment to the constitution through the parliament, reinstating presidential term restrictions and empowering independent commissions to handle, among other matters, appointments and transfers in the public services, as well as to conduct elections. These powers had been exercised largely by the executive under Rajapaksa’s rule.

Wickremesinghe’s claim to the post of prime minister was fortified a few months later. On 26 June, Sirisena dissolved the parliament and announced new elections. Rajapaksa seized the opportunity to attempt a return to power by contesting the elections. But this time, Wickremesinghe defeated his old rival, with the UNP securing 106 seats over the SLFP’s 95 seats. He was sworn in on 21 August, becoming only the second individual, after Dudley Senanayake—who served in the 1950s and 1960s—to be sworn in four times.

Sirisena and Wickremesinghe now bear the responsibility of carving out a new path for the country. The war left horrific scars on every section of Sri Lankan society, and they must lead the way forward on seeking justice and reconciliation for those who suffered. Economic development and good governance will be intrinsic to this process of recovery. On the political front, Sirisena has indicated that it will be the responsibility of parliament to continue the work of reducing the powers of the presidency. If these reforms continue, those powers will pass on to the prime minister and the parliament. That could make Ranil Wickremesinghe the island’s most powerful prime minister in four decades.

Udita Jayasinghe Uditha Jayasinghe has been a journalist for 12 years. She currently works as the news editor for the business newspaper Daily FT, and is the Sri Lanka correspondent for the Wall Street Journal.