New Sri Lanka president Wickremesinghe sworn in eyeing unity government

New Sri Lanka president Wickremesinghe sworn in eyeing unity government
President Ranil Wickremesinghe is widely expected to invite his schoolmate and former public administration minister Dinesh Gunawardena to be the prime minister in Sri Lanka's new government.
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Ranil Wickremesinghe (front) was overwhelmingly elected president in a parliamentary vote on Wednesday [ARUN SANKAR/AFP/Getty]

Sri Lanka's six-time prime minister Ranil Wickremesinghe was sworn in on Thursday as president of the crisis-hit island nation, with plans to form a unity government to manage the turmoil.

The 73-year-old veteran politician, who was overwhelmingly elected as head of state in a parliamentary vote on Wednesday, took his oath of office with the country's police chief and top military brass standing behind him.

Official sources said the new leader was expected to shortly form a cabinet to steer the country out of its worst economic crisis since gaining independence from Britain.

Opposition leader Sajith Premadasa, who had supported a rival presidential candidate in Wednesday's vote, said he had met with Wickremesinghe to discuss how to protect the country from further "misery and disaster".

"We as an opposition will provide our constructive support for efforts to alleviate human suffering," Premadasa tweeted on Thursday.

Wickremesinghe's cabinet is expected to include several opposition lawmakers.

A foreign exchange crisis triggered by the coronavirus pandemic and exacerbated by mismanagement has left Sri Lanka suffering lengthy power blackouts and record-high inflation.

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The country's 22 million people have also endured months of food, fuel and medicine shortages.

Public anger boiled over when tens of thousands of protesters stormed the home of then-President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, forcing him to step down and clearing the way for Wickremesinghe's election.

Wickremesinghe is widely expected to invite his schoolmate and former public administration minister Dinesh Gunawardena to be the prime minister in the unity government.

But political sources said at least two other candidates were also in the running.

"There will be a few MPs from the main opposition joining the cabinet," a source close to Wickremesinghe said, adding that he was keen to ensure a rainbow coalition.

Wickremesinghe prorogued parliament for 24 hours on Thursday to start a fresh session of the legislature, with chief government whip Prasanna Ranatunga telling reporters that the new president wanted to reconstitute parliamentary committees.

Live coverage of the ceremony to swear in Wickremesinghe at the tightly-guarded parliament complex was cut off just as he and his wife Maithree walked into the building after reviewing a military parade.

A top defence official told AFP an investigation was underway to probe why the broadcast was interrupted.

'Dumb bets'

A priority for the new government is to pursue ongoing bailout talks with the International Monetary Fund and restructure its unsustainable foreign debt.

The US Central Intelligence Agency overnight blamed Sri Lanka's financial crisis on high-debt Chinese investments, several of which funded white elephant infrastructure projects.

"The Chinese have a lot of weight to throw around and they can make a very appealing case for their investments," CIA chief Bill Burns said at the Aspen Security Forum in Washington.

He added that Sri Lanka had "made some really dumb bets about their economic future", attributing the current "catastrophic" economic conditions to those decisions.

China is Sri Lanka's largest single bilateral foreign lender, accounting for more than 10 percent of the $51 billion external debt on which the government announced a default in April.

Tough line

After worshipping at a Buddhist temple on Wednesday following his election, Wickremesinghe vowed to take a tough line against troublemakers trying to disrupt his government.

He made a distinction between peaceful protesters and "troublemakers" engaging in illegal behaviour.

"If you try to topple the government, occupy the president's office and the prime minister's office, that is not democracy, it is against the law," Wickremesinghe said.

"We will deal with them firmly according to the law. We will not allow a minority of protesters to suppress the aspirations of the silent majority clamouring for a change in the political system."

Protesters who stormed Rajapaksa's palace and toppled him earlier this month have accused Wickremesinghe of being a proxy of the former Sri Lankan president's powerful family.

"I am not a friend of the Rajapaksas," he told reporters at the Gangaramaya temple. "I am a friend of the people."