Colombo, Sri Lanka ( Associated Press) – Veteran politician Ranil Wickremesinghe was sworn in as Sri Lanka’s new president on Thursday, taking charge of a nation he will remain in power amid an unprecedented economic crisis.
Sri Lankans have taken to the streets for months demanding their top leaders take responsibility for the economic chaos that has left the country’s 22 million people grappling with shortages of essentials, including medicine, fuel and food. While protesters have focused on Rajapaksa’s political lineage, Wickremesinghe has also vented his anger over the alleged Rajapakse surrogate.
The six-time prime minister had never held the top post. But he easily won a secret ballot by lawmakers on Wednesday to end the term of former President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, who fled the country last week after protesters stormed his residence and resigned.
Wickremesinghe, 73, has vast experience in diplomatic and international affairs and is overseeing bailout talks with the International Monetary Fund.
Despite public anger at Wickremesinghe as an example of the country’s problematic political establishment, lawmakers clearly saw him as a safe hand to lead the nation through the crisis. During demonstrations last week, a mob torched his private residence and occupied his office.
After Wednesday’s vote, Wickremesinghe called on politicians to work together and move the country forward. But the protesters instead rushed to the presidential residence, “Raniel, go home.”
Wickremesinghe took the oath of office before Chief Justice Jayanta Jayasuriya on Thursday morning at a function held in Parliament in the capital Colombo. Now he can choose the new prime minister.
In an example of the troubles caused by the economic crisis, a power outage disrupted the live coverage of the swearing-in ceremony in Parliament. A parliament official, speaking on condition of anonymity because he is not authorized to speak to the media, said the live coverage was to be done by a state-owned independent television network.
Wickremesinghe said that talks with the IMF on Monday were close to conclusion and talks on help from other countries had also progressed. He also said that the government has taken steps to address the shortage of fuel and cooking gas.
( Associated Press video/Rishi Lekhi)
On Wednesday, IMF Managing Director Kristalina Georgieva told financial magazine Nikkei Asia that the organization hopes to complete rescue talks “as soon as possible”.
On Monday, in his role as acting president, Wickremesinghe declared a state of emergency that gave him broad powers to act in the interest of public safety and order. Officers can search and detain people, and Wickremesinghe can change or suspend any law. Parliament can regularly review legislation and it will lapse without its approval.
The President in Sri Lanka is usually elected by the people. The responsibility falls on Parliament only if the presidency becomes vacant before the term officially ends. This has happened once before, in 1993, when the then Prime Minister Dingiri Banda Wijetunga was elected unopposed by Parliament after the assassination of former President Ranasinghe Premadasa, the father of the current opposition leader.