New Sri Lanka PM Ranil Wickremesinghe struggles to form government

Central bank chief warned this week that the economy was just days from 'collapse beyond redemption'

Sri Lanka's Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe arrives at a Buddhist temple in Colombo after his swearing-in ceremony on Thursday.  Reuters
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Sri Lanka's Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe suffered his first setback after taking office on Thursday when a leading opposition MP rejected his invitation to take the post of finance minister in a unity government.

Mr Wickremesinghe, 73, was appointed after his predecessor Mahinda Rajapksa resigned amid violent nationwide protests over an economic crisis that has caused months of shortages, rising prices and blackouts.

The veteran politician, who has been prime minister five times before, said he was confident of getting enough support to steer the country through the crisis and approached several potential allies to join his administration.

But on Friday opposition MP Harsha de Silva, an economist, publicly rejected an overture to take charge of the nation's finances and said he would instead push for the government's resignation.

People are not asking for political games and deals, they want a new system that will safeguard their future
Harsha de Silva, MP

“People are not asking for political games and deals, they want a new system that will safeguard their future,” he said in a statement.

He said he was joining “the people's struggle” to topple President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, the former prime minister’s younger brother, and would not support any political settlement that left the leader in place.

Mr De Silva is a member of the Samagi Jana Balawegaya (SJB) party, the largest opposition grouping in parliament, which had appeared ready to split over the question of whether to support Mr Wickremesinghe.

But the head of the possible splinter faction, Harin Fernando, said on Friday he had returned to the fold.

"I will not support Wickremesinghe's government," Mr Fernando told AFP.

Two smaller parties also signalled that they would not join a unity government.

The Tamil National Alliance said Mr Rajapaksa's administration had "completely lost legitimacy" with the appointment of Mr Wickremesinghe, who most recently held office in 2019.

The leftist People's Liberation Front (JVP) meanwhile said new national elections were the only way out of the current impasse.

Mr Wickremesinghe is the only member of parliament from his United National Party and must rely on rival political parties to form a government. An alliance led by the president and his brother holds about 100 of parliament's 225 seats, while the opposition has 58 seats. The rest are independent.

Hundreds of people remain camped at a protest site in the capital Colombo, demanding that Mr Rajapaksa step down.

Populist tax cuts and other policies introduced by the Rajapksa brothers since 2019, as well as the effects of the Covid pandemic and rising oil prices, have drained Sri Lanka’s foreign exchange reserves and caused rampant inflation and fuel shortages.

Sri Lanka's central bank chief warned this week that the island nation's economy was just days from “collapse beyond redemption” unless a new government was urgently appointed.

A month of relatively peaceful protests turned violent on Monday as Rajapaksa supporters and protesters clashed outside the president’s office. At least nine people died and more than 300 were injured as the violence spread across the country.

Mahinda Rajapaksa resigned the same day and has taken refuge at the Trincomalee naval base in Sri Lanka's east. He has been banned by a court from leaving the country.

Troops have largely restored order and a nationwide curfew has been in effect for most of the week.

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

But it remains to be seen whether a new cabinet will be enough to calm public anger if Mr Rajapaksa continues to resist calls for his resignation.

“We will stop this struggle when our people get justice,” said Chamalage Shivakumar, one of the protesters.

“Whoever they appoint as prime minister, we will not stop this struggle until people get relief,” he told Reuters.

With reporting from agencies.

Updated: May 13, 2022, 9:21 AM