Respected five-time former premier Ranil Wickremesinghe was the frontrunner to head a 'unity government' in Sri Lanka
Respected five-time former premier Ranil Wickremesinghe was the frontrunner to head a 'unity government' in Sri Lanka AFP / Ishara S. KODIKARA

"Sri Lanka is now putting wanted ads for a PM," this was Ranil Wickremasinghe's response to a question by a daily few days ago about whether he would accept the post of the prime minister in an interim arrangement. It seems, that he has responded to that ad, and bingo! he got the job.

During an exclusive interview with the local Sunday Observer newspaper May 8, Wickremasinghe displayed little sign of ruling the cash-strapped country where protestors are up in arms against the ruling Rajapaksa clan over shortages of food, fuel, and medicines.

Wickremasinghe, the nephew of Sri Lanka's first executive president Junius Jayewardene, accepted the offer after the principal opposition party Samagi Jana Balawegaya (SJB), and others turned down the presidential request to form an interim unity government. Wickremasinghe, the 73-year-old veteran leader and the sole parliamentary representative of the United National Party (UNP) appeared to be the only option before the president to face the crippling economic crisis, which caused the downfall of his brother Mahindra Rajapaksa's elected government May 9.

Ranil Wickremesinghe - the four-time Prime Minister of Sri Lanka and who has never completed a full term in office, has been handpicked by executive President Gotabaya Rajapaksa's administration to take charge of the bankrupt island nation, facing a severe balance of payment crisis.

In fact, the former lawyer's political career appeared to be drawing to a close after the UNP, a once-powerful political force, was nearly wiped out in the last elections. Even Wickremasinghe, who has lost two presidential contests, was not sure of the country's top job coming on his way.

In the dynastic nature of Lankan politics, former prime minister Premadasa's son and leader of the SJB Sajith Premadasa was touted to replace Mahindra, who has now sought shelter in a naval base in Trincomalee in the Eastern Province along with his family members, fearing for his life.

As protesters have blocked the entrance to the president's office for more than a month, Wickremesinghe, a contentious choice by President Gotabaya, took the oath in a low-profile ceremony at the president's residence May 12.

In a May 12 address, President Rajapaksa said that to prevent the "country from heading towards anarchy," he would appoint a prime minister and a cabinet.

The ruling Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP), a section of the main opposition SJB and several others have expressed their support to Wickremesinghe in Parliament, according to Sri Lankan media.

Hit by the most devastating economic crisis since Independence in 1984, anti-government protests are growing in the country seeking President Rajapaksa's scalp. The country's parliament is expected to debate a no-trust motion against the President May 17, according to the speaker's office.

Due to the clashes between pro and anti-government activists in the capital Colombo and other places, the import-reliant country is placed in a state of emergency and is under curfew.

Left with little money to import essential goods as the nation is on the brink of default on its US$51 billion foreign debt, Wickremesinghe will serve at the pleasure of President Gotabaya in his new role.

The UNP, the nation's oldest party, failed to win a single seat and Wickremesinghe, who contested from the party stronghold Colombo in 2020, was also routed. He, however, found his way to the country's parliament on the basis of a cumulative national vote allotted to the UNP.

President Gotabaya is pinning hopes on Wickremesinghe's status as a free-market reformist and his pro-West policies to start bailout talks with foreign creditors, including the International Monetary Fund. His reputation for sound economic management of the country to stave off the economic recession in 2001 also earned bonus points for him before the embattled president.

He enjoys a good personal rapport with the country's immediate neighbour India and visited it on four occasions - October 2016, April 2017, November 2017, and October 2018 -as the prime minister. Wickremesinghe as prime minister began peace talks and even offered a power-sharing deal to the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) as India once had a soft corner for the Tamil-speaking outfit. Despite stiff opposition, Wickremesinghe backed the deal with India on the Colombo port's eastern terminal which the Rajapsksas rolled back in 2020.

However, a feeble Wickremesinghe will not have any influence on the pro-China policies of the Rajapaksa clan as he owes his current top job to the country's executive president. Although, he is the right bet to present before the western creditors to bail out the crisis-hit nation.

After visiting a Buddhist temple May 12, Wickremesinghe told reporters that there would be no quick fix to the unprecedented economic woes. Buddhism is the largest and official religion in the country.

His "Mr. Clean" image was once muddied when his administration was rocked by an insider trading scam that involved the country's central bank and Arjuna Mahendran, Wickremesinghe's schoolmate and close ally.

He was accused of cronyism as he allowed many culprits who were accused of graft, kickbacks, and siphoning off public finances, to go scot-free during his earlier tenures.

It seems Wickremesinghe, in his new job as prime minister to the president, has a tough task at hand.