Ranil Wickremesinghe sworn in as PM of crisis-hit Sri Lanka

The five-time former prime minister is being appointed in an effort to bring stability to the island nation, says a party official.

Ranil Wickremesinghe
Ranil Wickremesingheis is seen as a pro-West free market reformist [Courtesy: Ranil Wickremesinghe's United National Party]

Five-time former Sri Lankan Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe has been reappointed for a 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, took his oath before President Gotabaya Rajapaksa at a ceremony in 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 about violent attacks by his supporters on peaceful protesters who have demanded the government step down.

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

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

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

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

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

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

But in a bid to win over the opposition, which is demanding he quit before agreeing to any new government, the 72-year-old pledged 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 banned 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-West free-market reformist, potentially making bailout negotiations with the IMF and others smoother.

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

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

“It is a terrible time to be the prime minister in Sri Lanka,” he said. “This will be his toughest run.”

Ranil Wickremesinghe
Ranil Wickremesinghe has held the Sri Lankan prime minister’s post five times in the past [Courtesy: Ranil Wickremesinghe’s United National Party]

Sri Lankans have suffered months of severe shortages of food, fuel and medicines and long power cuts after the government, short on 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 armoured personnel carriers with orders to shoot on sight anyone engaged in looting or violence have since largely restored order.

A curfew was lifted on Thursday morning but only to be reimposed after a six-hour break allowing Sri Lanka’s 22 million people to stock up on essentials.

Ratnayaka said Wickremesinghe “has a plan” to tackle the unprecedented economic crisis on the island. “He will lay down the plan in the next 1-2 days to the people.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“This appointment does not take away what the protesters want. The foremost call from the protesters is for Gotabaya Rajapaksa to resign,” she told Al Jazeera.

“But at the same time, we have to look at our other issues. 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

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies