Sri Lanka’s beleaguered president, Gotabaya Rajapaksa, has sworn in a new prime minister to replace his brother as the country reels from days of violence.
The new PM, Ranil Wickremesinghe, who has held the post five times before, will head up a “unity government” tasked with finding a way out of Sri Lanka’s worst economic crisis since independence, with severe shortages of food, fuel and medicines and long power cuts.
The 73-year-old, a stalwart of Sri Lankan politics for more than four decades, last served as prime minister between 2015 and 2019 after an election that unseated the powerful Rajapaksa clan from power after more than a decade.
Wickremesinghe visited a Buddhist temple after taking his oath and told journalists he will work with both the opposition and governing party to find solutions to the hardships faced by the people. “We want to return the nation to a position where our people will once again have three meals a day,” Wickremesinghe said . “Our youth must have a future.”
He heads the United National party (UNP), which has only one seat in parliament, but Vajira Abeywardena, a UNP official, said a Wickremesinghe-led government had the majority support of 160 out of 225 MPs. “He is being sworn in as prime minister … because a number of members of parliament have asked him to take over and solve the country’s problems,” Abeywardena said.
Mahinda Rajakapsa, the president’s brother, reluctantly resigned as prime minister on Monday after violent attacks by the family’s supporters on peaceful anti-government protesters.
Protesters have blamed the president for devastating economic mismanagement and corruption that have pushed Sri Lanka to the brink of bankruptcy, and repeatedly called on him to quit. It is unclear whether Wickremesinghe’s appointment will be enough to placate them.
Monday’s attacks by pro-government supporters of the Rajapaksas on a peaceful protest camp in Colombo led to several days of violence in which at least nine people were killed and more than 200 injured. Dozens of residences owned by the Rajapaksas and their loyalists were set on fire.
The army was deployed across Colombo, police were given orders to shoot looters on sight, and a nationwide curfew was in place until Thursday morning.
Mahinda Rajapaksa’s resignation meant the government and cabinet was dissolved, leaving a power vacuum. The main opposition SJB party was initially invited to lead a new government, but its leader, Sajith Premadasa, insisted the president step down first.
Wickremsinghe is seen as a pro-west free-market reformist, potentially making bailout negotiations with the International Monetary Fund and others smoother. He has criticised decision-making by the Rajapaksas, particularly its refusal to go to the IMF, and was among those who called for Mahinda Rajapaksa to step down after Monday’s violence.
Some see Wickremesinghe as a safe pair of hands to run an interim government, but others questioned his appointment given that his party has only one seat in parliament and said citizens wanted sweeping reforms.
Opposition politicians 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.
Members of Sri Lanka’s influential Buddhist clergy have already signalled their dissatisfaction with the appointment of the veteran politician. “What we asked for is a new government that will include fresh blood, not those whose who have already been rejected by the people,” said leading monk Omale Sobitha.
In an interview with the Guardian in April, Wickremesinghe denied he had any intention of joining the government, despite reports he was working with the Rajapaksas behind the scenes.
“No, no, I’m only getting involved in the sense of helping to resolve some of the economic issues from the outside, I’m not joining the government as a minister or anything,” he said. “That leaves me free. I have no interest except to make sure people are fed and parliament takes control of the situation.”
Amid fears that members of the ruling elite might try to flee the country, the courts imposed an overseas travel ban on Thursday on 17 leaders of the governing Sri Lanka People’s Front (SLPP), including Mahinda Rajapaksa and his son Namal.