Ranil Wickremesinghe sworn in as prime minister of crisis-hit Sri Lanka | Political news

Sri Lanka’s former five-time prime minister, Ranil Wickremesinghe, has been re-elected for the sixth time in an effort to bring stability to his country amid a political and economic crisis that has engulfed the island nation.

Wickremesinghe, 73, was sworn in by President Gotabaya Rajapaksa in a ceremony at the president’s office on Thursday.

“A cabinet is likely to be appointed tomorrow,” Sudewa Hettiarachchi, a spokesman for President Rajapaksa, told AFP.

The president’s brother, Mahinda Rajakapsa, resigned as prime minister on Monday following outrage over violent attacks by his supporters on peaceful protesters who demanded the government resign.

His resignation automatically dissolved the Cabinet, leaving an administrative vacuum.

The president’s selection of Wickremesinghe is seen as an attempt to end the violence sparked by the economic crisis and restore international credibility as the government negotiates a rescue package with the International Monetary Fund.

“This is a historic event,” Tamil lawmaker Dharmalingam Sithadthan said in reference to Wickremesinghe’s latest return to the main office.

“This shows the desperate situation in our country.”
Vajira Abeywardena, an official from the United National Party (UNP) that Wickremesinghe heads, said on Thursday that members of parliament had asked Wickremesinghe to “take control and solve the country’s problems.”

Abeywardena said more than 160 lawmakers in the 225-member parliament supported Wickremesinghe’s selection, but this could not be independently verified.

In a televised address to the nation on Wednesday night, Rajapaksa stopped short of giving in to weeks of nationwide protests calling for his resignation as president over the country’s worst economic downturn since independence.

But in a bid to win over the opposition, which is demanding he step down before accepting any new government, the 72-year-old has vowed to give up most of his executive powers and set up a new cabinet this week.

Mahinda Rajapaksa, the president’s older brother, resigned as prime minister on Monday after his supporters attacked anti-government supporters who had been protesting peacefully for weeks.

A Sri Lankan court on Thursday barred the former prime minister, his son Namal Rajapaksa and 15 allies from leaving the island over Monday’s violence.

Who is Ranil Wickremesinghe?

Wickremesinghe is seen as a pro-Western free-market reformer, which could facilitate bailout negotiations with the IMF and others.

Wickremesinghe had already been working closely with Rajapaksa to shake up the finance ministry and central bank and make sweeping changes to fiscal and monetary policy, the source said.

Sagala Ratnayaka, a national organizer for the UNP, told Al Jazeera that the parliamentarian agreed to be prime minister when “no one [else] I was taking this challenge.”

“It’s a terrible time to be prime minister in Sri Lanka,” he said. “This will be the most difficult race for him.”

Ranil Wickremesinghe has served as Prime Minister of Sri Lanka five times in the past. [Courtesy: Ranil Wickremesinghe’s United National Party]

Sri Lankans have suffered for months from severe food, fuel and medicine shortages and lengthy power cuts after the government, short of foreign currency to pay its debts, halted many imports.

The crisis resulted in violent protests and chaos that killed at least nine people and injured more than 200.
Security forces patrolling in armored personnel carriers with orders to shoot on sight of anyone involved in looting or violence have largely restored order.

The curfew was lifted on Thursday morning but only re-imposed after a six-hour break that allowed Sri Lanka’s 22 million people to stock up on essentials.

Ratnayaka said Wickremesinghe “has a plan” to address the island’s unprecedented economic crisis. “He will set the plan in the next 1-2 days for the people.”

Political analyst Aruna Kulatunga told Al Jazeera that Wickremesinghe “will first try to stabilize the political landscape in Sri Lanka by bringing all political parties together to immediately introduce a new constitutional amendment.”

“This will restrict the extensive powers that President Gotabaya Rajapaksa enjoys,” he said, adding that Wickremesinghe would then embark on immediate negotiations with the IMF and World Bank.

“It will also start bilateral negotiations with traditional Sri Lankan donor countries such as Japan, Germany, India and China.”

Sri Lanka’s central bank chief warned Wednesday that the economy will “collapse beyond redemption” unless a new government is urgently appointed.

The central bank nearly doubled key interest rates and announced a $51 billion default on Sri Lanka’s foreign debt as part of the policy change, officials said.

However, Bhavani Fonseka of the Center for Policy Alternatives think tank believes Wickremesinghe’s appointment as prime minister will not stop the weeks-long protests.

“This appointment does not take away what the protesters want. The most important call of the protesters is the resignation of Gotabaya Rajapaksa,” he told Al Jazeera.

“But at the same time, we have to look at our other problems. We don’t have a prime minister and a cabinet. Therefore, there was a political vacuum. We need political and economic stability in our country. This is essential.”

Aanya Wipulasena contributed to this report from Colombo, Sri Lanka

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