Sri Lanka appointed a new prime minister on Thursday, as its embattled president seeks a way out of the country’s worst economic crisis since independence that has sparked widespread protests.
Ranil Wickremesinghe, a political veteran who has been prime minister of the island nation five times before, must try to address financial chaos and heal political divisions as he sets out to form a coalition government.
“We are facing a crisis, we have to get out of it,” Wickremesinghe told Reuters as he left a temple in the main city of Colombo shortly after his swearing-in. Asked whether there was a possible solution, he replied: “Absolutely.”
The 73-year-old is an economic liberal who has experience in dealing with the International Monetary Fund, which is currently in discussions to bail out Sri Lanka.
He has also built relationships with regional powers India and China, key investors and lenders who vie for influence over the island nation that lies along busy shipping routes linking Asia to Europe.
President Gotabaya Rajapaksa 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.”
The current crisis could be Wickremesinghe’s greatest challenge yet. Economic mismanagement, the Covid-19 pandemic and rising energy costs following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine have drained state coffers, meaning Sri Lanka is running low on fuel and essential medicines and facing daily power blackouts.
Rajapaksa, whose elder brother Wickremesinghe replaced as prime minister, has called nationwide curfews and given security forces sweeping powers to shoot at anyone involved in looting or putting people’s lives at risk.
Some opposition politicians and religious leaders objected to Wickremesinghe’s appointment, saying citizens wanted sweeping reforms. 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.
US envoy 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.
Court bars Mahinda from leaving the country
Mahinda Rajapaksa, the ex-PM has been barred from leaving the country by a local court, media reports said.
The travel ban has also been imposed on Mahinda Rajapaksa’s son and former minister Namal Rajapaksa, and some members of parliament, News Wire reported citing sources.