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Smarter than the “old fox”: Sri Lanka’s presumptive president

#Smarter #fox #Sri #Lankas #presumptive #president

Incumbent Sri Lankan President Ranil Wickremesinghe is the favorite to take over the long-term reins of the country on Wednesday as Parliament votes on the appointment of a full successor to Gotabaya Rajapaksa.

Wickremesinghe, a six-time former prime minister, has the backing of Rajapaksa’s Sri Lankan Podujana Peramuna (SLPP), the largest bloc in the 225-member legislature.

Victory would be the fulfillment of a lifelong ambition for the veteran politician, who is currently acting head of state after Rajapaksa’s disgraced resignation, fleeing to Singapore and driving his country to economic ruin.

Pro-Western Wickremesinghe has sought the position for decades.

A few families have long dominated politics in the Indian Ocean island nation, and Wickremesinghe is the nephew of one of its longest-serving leaders, Junius Jayewardene, who ruled for 12 years before stepping down in 1989.

Jayewardene, nicknamed the “Old Fox,” was known for his cunning, but his nephew is considered an even more astute navigator of the country’s murderous power networks.

It was Jayewardene who made him Deputy Secretary of State in 1977 that launched him into politics. Commentators joked that their United National Party (UNP) initials actually stood for uncle and nephew.

Family members say Jayewardene, who died in 1996, wanted to ensure Wickremesinghe became president “even for one day”.

On Friday, Wickremesinghe became acting president and is stepping down from his position as prime minister as required by Sri Lanka’s constitution.

He had only been appointed to the role in mid-May, when Gotabaya’s older brother Mahinda resigned amid widespread protests against Rajapaksa rule as the country faced its worst economic crisis on record.

Wickremesinghe previously ran for the presidency twice – in 1999 and 2005 – and lost both elections, and the UNP was crushed in a general election in 2020, leaving the silver-haired veteran as its only MP.

However, his political maneuvering has meant that he has outsmarted opponents and emerged as the front runner for the presidency.

But while he has the official support of the largest party in parliament, the protesters who ousted Rajapaksa are also calling for his resignation, accusing him of protecting the interests of the ex-president’s family.

Analysts say he will crack down if he is elected and protesters take to the streets against him.

– burn books –

Wickremesinghe is married to Maithree, an English teacher. They have no children and left their fortune to his old school and universities.

But her impressive library of more than 2,500 books – which he called his “greatest treasure” – was among the casualties when her home was torched by protesters who were also evicting Rajapaksa from his official residence.

Born into a wealthy and politically connected family with roots in publishing and plantations, Wickremesinghe began working as a newly minted reporter at one of the family newspapers.

He turned to a legal career after the family business was nationalized in 1973 by Sirima Bandaranaike, the world’s first female prime minister.

“If Lake House hadn’t been acquired, I would have become a journalist. So Ms. Bandaranaike actually sent me into politics,” Wickremesinghe once told AFP.

His first appointment as prime minister came as a result of the assassination of President Ranasinghe Premadasa by a suicide bomber in May 1993.

The then Prime Minister, Dingiri Banda Wijetunga, was appointed President and selected Wickremesinghe – then Minister of Industry, Science and Technology – as his successor.

A similar attack probably denied him the presidency six years later: his biggest electoral rival, Chandrika Kumaratunga, was wounded by a suicide bomber just three days before the elections.

She brought the nation to tears in a television appearance with a patch over her right eye that she had lost and received a significant vote of sympathy, with Wickremesinghe losing an election many thought he would win.

Now the political wheel could turn again: Premadasa’s son Sajith is now opposition leader and supports Wickremesinghe’s biggest rival for the presidency, Dullas Alahapperuma.

– banking scandal –

Wickremesinghe has long had a relatively clean image in Sri Lanka’s often-corrupt politics, but it was tarnished during his penultimate tenure as prime minister in 2015-19, when his government was rocked by an insider trading scam involving central bank bonds.

His schoolmate and choice as central bank governor was one of the main defendants, making allegations of nepotism.

Wickremesinghe has also been accused of protecting members of the Rajapaksa clan, who have been accused of bribery, bribes, siphoning off public funds and even murder.

As incumbent president, he took responsibility for a bankrupt nation that defaulted on its $51 billion foreign debt and lacked the money to import essential goods.

His status as a pro-Western free-market reformist could ease bailout negotiations with the International Monetary Fund and foreign creditors, but he has already warned there will be no quick fix to the nation’s unprecedented economic woes.

“The worst is yet to come. We now have very high inflation and hyperinflation is on the way,” Wickremesinghe told Parliament earlier this month. “We’re bankrupt.”

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