Experienced in corridor maneuvers, this silver-haired cacique was already acting president since the flight and resignation of Gotabaya Rajapaksa, pushed into exile by protesters in a bankrupt country.
Sri Lankan deputies elected him president on Wednesday with an overwhelming majority of 134 votes, against 82 for his main opponent Dullas Alahapperuma and only three for the left-wing candidate Anura Dissanayake. Wickremesinghe will rule until the end of Rajapaksa’s term in November 2024.
But if he obtained the support of the party of the Rajapaksa clan, the most important in Parliament, the street does not want him, even if he assured as soon as elected that “our divisions are over”.
Sri Lankan politics has always been dominated by a few great dynasties, and Wrickemesinghe is no exception: nephew of President Junius Jayewardene (1978-1989), it was his powerful uncle who appointed him in 1977 Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs foreign.
An uncle nicknamed the “old fox”, but whose nephew is reputed to be even more adept at navigating the mysteries of power.
Head of government at various times (1993-1994, 2001-2004, 2015-2019), beaten twice for the supreme post in 1999 and 2005, he was again recalled as Prime Minister in mid-May, when Mahinda Rajapaksa, the brother of Gotayaba, is forced to resign.
But Wrickemesinghe did not escape popular anger either: when the president’s residence was invaded by demonstrators on July 9, his home was burned down, and the 2,500 books in his library, his “greatest treasure”. , reduced to ashes.
– Banking scandal –
Born into a family with a fortune made in publishing and plantations, Wickremesinghe began as a reporter in one of the group’s newspapers.
By nationalizing the family business in 1973, Sirimavo Bandaranaike, the first woman in contemporary history to become Prime Minister of a country, changed the destiny of the young man.
“If Lake House had not been taken over, I would have become a journalist. In fact, Ms. Bandaranaike got me into politics,” he told AFP in the past.
In 1993, President Ranasinghe Premadasa died in a suicide attack. He is succeeded by Prime Minister Dingiri Banda Wijetunga, who himself appoints Wickremesinghe as head of government.
But another suicide attack in 1999 undoubtedly benefited her main rival, Chandrika Kumaratunga, who was injured just three days before the presidential election.
A bandage on her right eye lost in the attack, she moves the whole nation during a television appearance. And Wickremesinghe loses an election of which he was given the winner.
Married to Maithree, an English teacher with whom he had no children, he has long enjoyed a relatively clean image in a corrupt political world.
But that was muddied during his 2015-19 tenure as head of government, marred by an insider trading scandal involving Central Bank bonds.
A school friend, whom he had placed at the head of the institution, was one of the main defendants in this affair.
If elected president, his status as a pro-Western reformer and champion of free trade could facilitate negotiations with the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and foreign creditors over a possible bailout plan.
But he has already warned that there will be no quick fix to his country’s unprecedented economic and financial slump, with shortages of food, fuel and medicine.
“We are bankrupt,” the septuagenarian told parliament earlier this month: “the worst is yet to come.”