Veteran politician Ranil Wickremesinghe was on Thursday named the new prime minister of Sri Lanka as authorities tried to quell protesters that have crippled the economically troubled island.
President Gotabaya Rajapaksa appointed opposition lawmaker Wickremesinghe, Sri Lankan news outlet News 1st reported. The 73-year-old politician “has been sworn in as the Prime Minister of Sri Lanka on four occasions before,” it added.
“My main aim is to resolve the economic crisis in the country and see that the people have their food,” Wickremesinghe said after the swearing-in ceremony.
Wickremsinghe’s appointment drew protests from opposition parties on the grounds that his United National Party (UNP) holds just one seat in Parliament.
But President Rajapaksa’s ruling Sri Lanka People’s Front (SLPP) has decided to extend its support to Wickremesinghe. Constitutionally a majority of 113 seats are required to maintain a government in the 225-seat Parliament.
Initially, the position of prime minister was offered to the main opposition in Parliament, but they called for the president to also quit his post. The demand was rebuffed.
Earlier on Thursday, Sri Lanka’s president vowed changes to strengthen the country’s parliament.
“The new gov will be given the opportunity to present a new program & empowered to take the country forward. Further, steps will be taken to amend the constitution to re-enact the contents of the 19th Amendment to further empower the Parliament,” Rajapaksa wrote on Twitter.
People took to the streets at the end of March, protesting hourslong daily power cuts and shortages of food, fuel and other vital goods after a foreign exchange shortage led to the island country’s worst-ever economic crisis.
On Monday, clash erupted between government supporters and protesters gathered around the Prime Minister’s Office, and military units were called to the capital Colombo.
Amid growing pressure from the opposition, Mahinda Rajapaksa stepped down.
The government declared a nationwide curfew and ordered troops to open fire on anyone looting public property or causing harm to life.
In nationwide protests, eight people, including a ruling party deputy and two police officers, lost their lives and nearly 250 people were injured.
Wickremesinghe is the leader of the UNP which ruled the country for 38 of the 74 years since gaining independence in 1948. The 73-year-old has been in Parliament for 45 years.
However, due to a split in the party in 2020 a majority of the members broke away and then contested the parliamentary elections. They are the Samagi Jana Balawegyaya (SJB) and are the main opposition in Parliament.
Meanwhile, armed forces backed by the police are strictly enforcing a night-time curfew through Friday morning to ensure no new violent incidents.
Nine deaths have been reported due to violence since Monday while over 260 people have been hospitalized for injuries during the clashes. More than 100 houses and buildings have been destroyed, along with more than 220 vehicles.
The speech started after ruling party supporters attacked anti-government demonstrators, setting off a wave of violence across the country. Houses and businesses of politicians were burnt down.
No such incidents were reported on Thursday, but troops were across the country to maintain security.
Opposition lawmaker Anura Dissananayake said the choice of Wickremesinghe was more about protecting the president and his family from public anger over his role in the economic crisis than solving the country’s problems.
When he was previously prime minister from 2015 to 2019, Wickremesinghe was accused of protecting Rajapaksa’s powerful family from allegations of corruption and other wrongdoing.
Buddhist and Catholic clergy also objected to Wickremesinghe’s selection.
“This decision has been taken totally disregarding the aspirations of the people who are protesting today. The protests can only get worse by this decision,” said the Rev. Omalpe Sobitha, a senior Buddhist monk.
Catholic Archbishop of Colombo Cardinal Malcolm Ranjith said for the country to move forward from the crisis, “we need a complete change of the system.”
Political analyst Ranga Jayasuriya said by appointing Wickremesinghe as prime minister, “President Gotabaya Rajapaksa did not put out the fire, but added fuel on it.”
“People would be angrier with this snub of hiring a man who has no public support,” Jayasuriya tweeted.
US Ambassador to Sri Lanka Julie Chung said she is looking forward to working with Wickremesinghe, and that his appointment and “the quick formation of an inclusive government are first steps to addressing the crisis and promoting stability.”
“We encourage meaningful progress at the IMF and long-term solutions that meet the needs of all Sri Lankans,” she said in a tweet.
Sri Lanka is nearly bankrupt and has suspended repayments of $7 billion in foreign loans due this year. The IMF has said any short or long-term assistance depends on the outcome of talks with creditors on loan restructuring. Sri Lanka must repay about $25 billion in foreign loans by 2026 out of a current total foreign debt of $51 billion.
The Finance Ministry said earlier this month that the country’s usable foreign reserves have plummeted to $25 million.
The foreign currency shortage has forced a sharp decline in imports, leading to severe shortages of essentials such as fuel, cooking gas, food and medicine.
Wickremesinghe will likely present a Cabinet list to the president for appointment, a power vested in him by the constitution. If there are any objectives to the prime minister or the new Cabinet, lawmakers can submit a no-confidence motion to the house speaker when the body reconvenes on Tuesday. The motion would then be debated and voted on.
Wickremesinghe’s reputation was damaged during his previous term as prime minister, when he was in a difficult power-sharing arrangement with then-President Maithripala Sirisena. Conflict and a communication breakdown between them were blamed for intelligence lapses that led to Easter Sunday suicide bomb attacks in 2019 that killed more than 260 people.
He was also accused of shielding a friend he was appointed as head of the central bank from allegations of insider trading.
In 1978, he was made the country’s youngest cabinet minister at the age of 29 by his uncle, President Junius Jayewardene. He became a party leader in 1994 after assassinations wiped out several of the party’s more senior members.
In contrast to Mahinda Rajapaksa, he has little support beyond wealthy urban voters.