How did Ranil Wickremesinghe become Sri Lanka's president after six terms as PM?

He has been called 'the eighth wonder of the world' by his fellow Sri Lankans

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Political stalwart Ranil Wickremesinghe became Sri Lanka's president on Wednesday, securing votes from 134 of 225 parliamentarians, despite his United National Party holding only one seat in the chamber.

His election was a blow for many protesters at the secretariat and adjoining protest camp in the commercial capital Colombo, which has been the epicentre of nationwide demonstrations which ousted his predecessor Gotabaya Rajapaksa.

Here's what you need to know about him.

Who is Ranil Wickremesinghe?

Mr Wickremesinghe is no stranger to Sri Lankan politics. A lawyer by profession, he was first elected to the country's parliament in 1977.

His constant reappearance on the political scene, despite multiple failures to be elected president, has led him being called the “eighth wonder of the world" by his fellow Sri Lankans.

Mr Wickremesinghe was born into one of the country's most influential families on March 24, 1949. His uncle, Junius Jayewardene, served as the Indian Ocean island's president for 12 years until 1989.

Jayewardene, who died in 1996, was the original architect of his nephew's entry into politics. He appointed Mr Wickremesinghe to his first ministerial post in 1978, making the 29-year-old at the time the country's youngest Cabinet minister.

In 1994, following assassinations that wiped out several of his senior colleagues, Mr Wickremesinghe became leader of the UNP.

His experience in senior government positions, and a reputation as a shrewd operator, should count in his favour as he seeks a way out of Sri Lanka 's devastating economic crisis.

How many times has he served as Sri Lanka's prime minister?

The 73-year-old has served as prime minister of Sri Lanka six times between 1993 and today.

Speaking about his political survivalism in 2014, he said "politics is more than chess."

"It's teamwork like cricket. It is how you must have the stamina for a marathon. It's a hard game like rugger (rugby) and it is a blood sport like boxing."

His most recent spell on the merry-go-round of senior political positions began in May, when he took over as prime minister for the sixth time after the former president's elder brother, Mahinda Rajapaksa, quit the position following clashes between pro and anti-government protesters that triggered a deadly wave of violence.

Since then, Mr Wickremesinghe has been involved in negotiations with the International Monetary Fund for a potential bailout package of up to $3 billion, besides working on an interim budget to slash government expenditure.

Has he served as president before?

Despite two attempts in 1999 and 2005, Mr Wickremesinghe managed to ascend to the presidency only this week. Both of those losses were humiliating, leaving him as the only MP for his UNP party in parliament.

Mr Wickremesinghe became acting president last week after Rajapaksa fled on a military plane to the Maldives and then took a commercial flight to Singapore.

He will now complete his predecessor's term until 2024, after beating ruling party lawmaker Dullas Alahapperuma and a third candidate, Anura Kumara Dissanayaka.

Speaking to lawmakers in parliament after his victory, Mr Wickremesinghe urged opposition leaders to work together with his administration, which faces the task of pulling Sri Lanka out of its worst economic crisis in seven decades.

"Our country is facing massive challenges and we have to work on a new strategy to fulfil the aspirations of the people," he said.

Who is his wife?

English lecturer Maithree Wickremesinghe, 57, is now the first lady of Sri Lanka. The academic graduated from King's College London and completed her masters in Women's Studies at the University of Colombo. She later attained a PhD from the Institute of Education at the University of London.

She married her husband in 1995. The couple have no children.

What does Mr Wickremesinghe's election mean for Sri Lanka?

Whether his election will solve Sri Lanka's crushing economic downturn remains to be seen, and his candidacy was criticised by protesters who ousted his predecessor Mr Rajapaksa.

But his political expertise may mean he can enact real change. Mr Wickremesinghe has recently negotiated with the IMF, and enjoys a working relationship with vital donor countries including India.

Hundreds of thousands of demonstrators took to the streets earlier this month to vent their fury at soaring inflation, shortages of fuel and other vital goods, regular power cuts and what they see as corruption among the ruling elite.

While the focus of their ire was Rajapaksa, a member of the country's most powerful political dynasty before the crisis who fled the country for Singapore, they also demanded that Mr Wickremesinghe stand down — something he refused to do.

Updated: July 20, 2022, 11:30 AM
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