Colombo: The surprise return of Ranil Wickremesinghe as crisis-hit Sri Lanka’s prime minister is being seen as an attempt to end the violent anti-government protests in the island nation and restore its international credibility to help bailout negotiations with the International Monetary Fund (IMF).
Wickremesinghe, 73, has been PM five times before but his United National Party (UNP) now has just one MP in the 225-member parliament. He took the oath of office in the presence of President Gotabaya Rajapaksa in a ceremony at the president’s office.
Wickremesinghe is also seen as the person who agreed to be prime minister when “no one (else) was taking this challenge”. “It is a terrible time to be the prime minister in Sri Lanka,” Sagala Ratnayaka, the United National Party’s national organiser, told Al Jazeera. “This will be his toughest run.”
President Rajapaksa tweeted congratulating the newly appointed PM, referring to the “challenging task of steering our country through a very turbulent time.” The Indian High Commission in Sri Lanka also said it was looking forward to working with the new government.
My best wishes to the newly appointed PM of #LKA, @RW_UNP, who stepped up to take on the challenging task of steering our country through a very turbulent time. I look forward to working together with him to make Sri Lanka 🇱🇰 strong again. pic.twitter.com/ysIZGH3wfA
— Gotabaya Rajapaksa (@GotabayaR) May 12, 2022
“He is being sworn in as prime minister this evening because a number of Members of Parliament have asked him to take over and solve the country’s problems,” Vajira Abeywardena, an official of the UNP, said Thursday.
Local media reports suggest that Wickremesinghe has plans to tackle the economic crisis, which he will reveal in the next day or two.
Seeking aid from other countries, saving banking system
Earlier this month, Wickremesinghe had argued that Sri Lanka’s political leaders should focus on seeking financial assistance from a number of countries — including India and China — to pull Sri Lanka out of this crisis. He had also said that this was more important than worrying about securing a working majority in Parliament.
“[The government] should pay attention to saving the banking system from collapsing. We saw how the banking sector collapsed in Greece, and the same happened in Indonesia in 1998. The government should speak to India, China, Japan, and South Korea to seek help,” he said, referring to the crisis in Greece in the wake of the 2008 global financial crash.
“Having 113 MPs in Parliament is no longer the solution for the present problem. The country is facing an economic crisis of unprecedented proportion,” he was quoted as saying by a newspaper, The Island.
However, speaking to The Indian Express in April, Wickremesinghe had denied rumours that the Rajapaksas had offered him the prime ministership.
“I’ve not been asked, and even if I were, I would stay out, because what can I do? I am a party of one (as the only member of his party UNP in Parliament). How can you run the administration? Parliament means you must have support, and numbers. Only the party with the largest numbers forms the government,” he had said then.
Wickremesinghe had suggested that to tide over Sri Lanka’s food shortage, the country must “borrow” food grains from its friends in South Asia — India, Pakistan and Bangladesh. He had also suggested that a consortium of countries that included India, China, Japan, together with South Korea and the European Union, could help Sri Lanka until the IMF negotiations bore fruit and the bailout began.
Speaking to ANI in April, Wickremesinghe had said that “no heavy Chinese investment” had been done under the current dispensation. “They’ve sought investments but investments haven’t come in. I think discussions are about rescheduling of repayment of loans. They’ve talked to the Chinese government, that’s all I know,” Wickremesinghe had said.
He blamed the Rajpaksas for mismanagement. “The government didn’t look after the economy. They were told several times to go to the IMF. They decided not to go on advice of the central bank and the treasury. People are paying the price now. It’s understandable that they want a change,” he said.
India hopes for ‘political stability’
The Indian High Commission in Sri Lanka Thursday lauded Wickremesinghe’s appointment and reiterated that New Delhi is hoping for “political stability” in Sri Lanka.
High Commission of India hopes for political stability and looks forward to working with the Government of Sri Lanka formed in accordance with democratic processes pursuant to the swearing in of Hon'ble @RW_UNP as the Prime Minister of #SriLanka. (1/2)
— India in Sri Lanka (@IndiainSL) May 12, 2022
It added that India’s commitment to the people of Sri Lanka would continue.
Ever since Sri Lanka’s economic meltdown began, India has been assisting its neighbour with lines of credit and immediate supplies. So far, this year alone, India has disbursed aid worth $3.5 billion to Sri Lanka.
On Tuesday, the Ministry of External Affairs had said that India would support “democracy, stability and economic recovery” in Sri Lanka, which has been witnessing violent protests since Monday following Mahinda Rajapaksa’s resignation as prime minister.
With inputs from Nayanima Basu
(Edited by Rohan Manoj)