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Ranil Wickremesinghe to be new PM of crisis-hit Sri Lanka: Party | Politics News

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Ranil Wickremesinghe is set to be appointed Sri Lanka’s prime minister, a position he has held five times in the past, in an effort to bring stability to the crisis-ridden island nation, a party official and local media reports say.

“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 United National Party (UNP) which Wickremesinghe heads, said on Thursday.

Abeywardena said more than 160 legislators in the 225-member parliament support Wickremesinghe’s selection, but this could not be verified independently.

There was no immediate comment from President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, who has the power to appoint the prime minister.

If Rajapaksa selects Wickremesinghe, it would be seen as an attempt to end violence triggered by the crisis and restore international credibility as his government negotiates a bailout package with the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and debt restructuring plans.

Local media reports said the 73-year-old UNP leader will take oath as prime minister at 6:30pm (13:00 GMT) on Thursday.

In a televised address to the nation on Wednesday night, Rajapaksa stopped short of yielding to weeks of nationwide protests calling for him to resign over the country’s worst economic downturn since independence.

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But in a bid to win over the opposition, which is demanding he quit before agreeing to any new government, the 72-year-old pledged to give up most of his executive powers and set up a new cabinet this week.

Mahinda Rajapaksa, the president’s older brother, resigned as prime minister on Monday after his supporters attacked anti-government supporters who had been protesting peacefully for weeks.

A Sri Lankan court on Thursday banned the former prime minister, his politician son Namal Rajapaksa and 15 allies from leaving the island over Monday’s violence.

Who is Ranil Wickremesinghe?

Wickremesinghe is seen as a pro-West free market reformist, potentially making bailout negotiations with the IMF and others smoother.

Wickremesinghe had already been working closely with Rajapaksa to shake up the finance ministry and the central bank and make sweeping fiscal and monetary policy changes, the source said.

Sagala Ratnayaka, UNP national organiser, told Al Jazeera the parliamentarian agreed to be the prime minister when “no one (else) was taking this challenge”.

“It is a terrible time to be the prime minister in Sri Lanka,” he said. “This will be his toughest run.”

Ranil Wickremesinghe
Ranil Wickremesinghe has held the Sri Lankan prime minister’s post five times in the past [Courtesy: Ranil Wickremesinghe’s United National Party]

Sri Lankans have suffered months of severe shortages of food, fuel and medicines and long power cuts after the government, short on foreign currency to pay its debts, halted many imports.

The crisis resulted in violent protests and chaos that killed at least nine people and injured more than 200.

Security forces patrolling in armoured personnel carriers with orders to shoot on sight anyone engaged in looting or violence have since largely restored order.

A curfew was lifted on Thursday morning but only to be reimposed after a six-hour break allowing Sri Lanka’s 22 million people to stock up on essentials.

Ratnayaka said Wickremesinghe “has a plan” to tackle the unprecedented economic crisis on the island. “He will lay down the plan in the next 1-2 days to the people.”

Political analyst Aruna Kulatunga told Al Jazeera Wickremesinghe “will attempt to first stabilise the political landscape of Sri Lanka by bringing together all the political parties to immediately introduce a new constitutional amendment”.

“This will restrict the sweeping powers enjoyed by President Gotabaya Rajapaksa,” he said, adding that Wickremesinghe will then embark on immediate negotiations with the IMF and the World Bank.

“He will also start bilateral negotiations with traditional donor countries to Sri Lanka such as Japan, Germany, India, and China.”

Sri Lanka’s central bank chief warned on Wednesday that the economy will “collapse beyond redemption” unless a new government was appointed urgently.

The central bank has nearly doubled key interest rates and announced a default on Sri Lanka’s $51bn external debt as part of the policy shift, officials said.

However, Bhavani Fonseka of the Centre for Policy Alternatives think-tank thinks Wickremesinghe’s appointment as prime minister will not stop the weeks-old protests.

“This appointment does not take away what the protesters want. The foremost call from the protesters is for Gotabaya Rajapaksa to resign,” she told Al Jazeera.

“But at the same time, we have to look at our other issues. We don’t have a prime minister and a cabinet. Therefore there was a political vacuum. We need political and economic stability in our country. This is essential.”

Aanya Wipulasena contributed to this report from Colombo, Sri Lanka

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