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Embattled Sri Lanka president replaces prime minister in closed ceremony

Gotabaya Rajapaksa Turns To Past PM Wickremesinghe As Economy Teeters On Brink

Ranil Wickremesinghe, newly appointed prime minister, arrives at a Buddhist temple after his swearing-in ceremony in Colombo on May 12.   © Reuters

COLOMBO -- Sri Lankan President Gotabaya Rajapaksa appointed five-time Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe back to the post on Thursday evening in a ceremony that was not open to the media, the latest development in the country's political and economic turmoil.

The 73-year-old Wickremesinghe, whose United National Party holds just one seat out of 225 in the country's parliament, held closed-door discussions with Rajapaksa on Wednesday night during which he accepted the position, according to sources.

Sources said the swearing-in was not open to the media over fears of a public backlash. The appointment follows the resignation of the president's brother, Mahinda Rajapaksa, from the post on Monday.

Less than two hours before his swearing-in, two prominent religious leaders opposed Rajapaksa's move to appoint Wickremesinghe as the new prime minister. Buddhist priest Omalpe Sobitha Thero and the head of Sri Lanka's Catholic Church, Cardinal Malcolm Ranjith, told a news conference that "this appointment is not the solution the people want."

During the closed-door talks, Rajapaksa and Wickremesinghe discussed addressing the country's economic crisis, marked by massive shortages of fuel and other essentials, power cuts, and less than $50 million available in usable foreign exchange reserves.

Read Also: New Lankan PM Wickremesinghe gets international backing

Although Wickremesinghe and Rajapaksa belong to opposing parties, the two are regarded as political allies. Wickremesinghe was accused of sweeping many corruption and other criminal cases involving the Rajapaksa family under the carpet when he served as prime minister from 2015 to 2019.

Leading human rights lawyer and advocate Ambika Satkunanathan said the appointment showed that despite protests and public demands, the president has no intention of stepping down and will try hard to stay in power. "This is deal-making to safeguard self-interest which is disguised as pragmatism," she told Nikkei Asia. "The president has been ably assisted in this by Ranil Wickremesinghe. At the same time, the main opposition SJB is also responsible for failing to respond proactively and effectively to the crisis, thereby creating space for this."

On Thursday afternoon, opposition leader Sajith Premadasa said he was ready to accept the position of prime minister if the president would agree to four conditions, one of which included Rajapaksa resigning from the presidency within a stipulated time frame.

Anura Kumara Dissanayake, leader of the Marxist Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna, called the appointment an effort by the Rajapaksas to protect themselves. "Ranil has always been the savior of the Rajapaksas, and by appointing him as prime minister it means they will be safeguarded despite their wrongdoings," he said just hours before Wickremesinghe's swearing-in.

In the 2020 parliamentary elections, Wickremesinghe lost his Colombo District race, receiving only 30,875 votes. He secured a seat in parliament on a national list that allocates seats to parties based on their share of total votes.

On Monday, Mahinda Rajapaksa, the president's eldest brother, submitted his resignation after pro-government mobs attacked peaceful protesters who were demanding that the two brothers step down. Since leaving the official residence of the prime minister on Tuesday morning, Mahinda, his family and several parliamentarians have been staying on an island in Trincomalee in the country's east under heavy guard. In response to the attacks on protesters, some people destroyed and set fire to homes and offices belonging to ruling party members, including an ancestral home of the Rajapaksa family in their hometown Hambantota.

Just minutes after his swearing-in, Mahinda Rajapaksa tweeted congratulations to his successor, saying, "I wish you all the best as you navigate these troubled times."

In another tweet, the U.S. Ambassador to Sri Lanka, Julie Chung, said the U.S. looked forward to working with Wickremesinghe. "His appointment as PM, and the quick formation of an inclusive government, are first steps to addressing the crisis & promoting stability. We encourage meaningful progress at the IMF & long-term solutions that meet the needs of all Sri Lankans."

Debt-laden Sri Lanka's economy has been hobbled by unstable fuel and power supplies. On Monday, central bank Gov. Nandalal Weerasinghe threatened to resign after warning that the country's economy would "completely collapse" if political stability was not ensured and a new government was not appointed within two days.

If the impasse continued, Weerasinghe said, Sri Lanka would have to face daily power cuts lasting up to 10 to 12 hours and a more severe shortage of fuel.