Sri Lanka leader names opponent Ranil Wickremesinghe as PM in push for unity

Mr Ranil Wickremesinghe (left) attending his swearing-in ceremony before President Gotabaya Rajapaksa (right) at the President's Palace in Colombo, on May 12, 2022. PHOTO: SRI LANKA PRESIDENT'S OFFICE

COLOMBO (BLOOMBERG, REUTERS) - Mr Ranil Wickremesinghe, a veteran lawmaker and former premier, has been named Sri Lanka’s next prime minister days after the last incumbent, the brother of President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, resigned in the face of escalating anger with the deepening economic crisis.

“We are facing a crisis, we have to get out of it,” Mr Wickremesinghe told Reuters as he left a temple in the main city of Colombo shortly after his swearing-in on Thursday (May 12). Asked whether there was a possible solution, he replied: “Absolutely.”

The announcement may bring a modicum of stability to the country, which is on the verge of bankruptcy and needs a government to lead bailout talks with the International Monetary Fund.

The country’s central bank chief has threatened to resign if political order isn’t restored urgently.

The new appointment is “the only option for Sri Lanka,” said Mr Ravi Karunanayake, a member of Mr Wickremesinghe’s party and a former finance minister.

“I think his appointment will calm down the protest although internally not everyone will be happy and there will be some who will have belly aches.”

The new prime minister’s first priority “will be to restore supply of gas and fuel and then getting the economy back on track,” he added.

A lawyer by training, Mr Wickremesinghe was first elected as a lawmaker in 1977.

He’s viewed as something of a survivor in the island nation’s politics. He’s served as minister in several governments and first served as premier in the early 1990s. He had an unbroken streak in parliament until 2020, when his party was trounced after the Easter Sunday bombings. 

Mr Wickremesinghe’s United National Party didn’t win a single seat in the election, which brought the Rajapaksas back to power, but he was able to return as lawmaker in 2021 through a system where parties with enough votes can nominate a member under the ‘national list’.

He has found issue with Mr Rajapaksa’s economic policies, pointing to falling foreign-currency reserves and flagging early on that the the government should seek help from the IMF.

The president on Thursday congratulated the new premier.

My best wishes to the newly appointed PM ... who stepped up to take on the challenging task of steering our country through a very turbulent time,” he tweeted. “I look forward to working together with him to make Sri Lanka strong again.”

Mr Wickremesinghe has been criticised by other Sri Lankan politicians in the past for his neo-liberal economic view, including striking a free trade agreement with Singapore.

This would be Mr Wickremesinghe’s sixth stint as prime minister.His most recent turn at the job ended in 2019 when he had served under then-president Maithripala Sirisena, the leader of the Sri Lanka Freedom Party, which was part of Mr Rajapaksa’s coalition. He later went independent.

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Sri Lanka is in the worst economic tailspin of its independent history. With inflation touching 30 per cent, the crisis has also turned into a political risk for the ruling Rajapaksa family.

Shortages of everything, from food to basic medicines, have brought angry citizens to the streets over the last many weeks.

On Monday, the largely peaceful protests took a violent turn with government supporters attacking demonstrators. Then-prime minister Mahinda Rajapaksa resigned but that didn’t cool the anger. The protesters have long been demanding that the president step down as well and the constitution be amended to curtail the sweeping powers of his office.

Widespread arson and clashes were reported from several parts of the country while homes and properties of several government lawmakers were set on fire.

At least nine people, including one ruling party MP, were killed in the violence. Since then the military has been called in to help police maintain law along with powers to shoot rioters. A nationwide curfew is also in place.

On Wednesday, Mr Gotabaya Rajapaksa side-stepped demands for his resignation as president but promised a new prime minister and cabinet within the week.

He also said that once political stability was restored he would discuss with all political parties steps to return greater power to parliament and trim the reach of the executive presidency.

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Sri Lankans have been protesting for weeks over power cuts and food shortages, as the country's worst economic crisis since independence in 1948 shows no sign of easing. Correspondent Rohini Mohan reports from Colombo.

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