By Chandani Kirinde
UNP Leader Ranil Wickremesinghe was sworn in as the country’s new Prime Minister before President Gotabaya Rajapaksa yesterday in one of the biggest reversals of political fortune in the country.
The shock decision to appoint Wickremesinghe to the post vacated by Mahinda Rajapaksa was made on Wednesday night after the President met with the UNP leader and invited him to take over as premier.
President Gotabaya Rajapaksa via Twitter wished the newly-appointed Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe his best for stepping up to the challenge to steer the country through a “very turbulent” time. The President said he looks forward to working together with the new PM to make Sri Lanka strong again.
In what pro-UNPers term as the “greatest political comeback” Wickremesinghe holds the single national list seat the UNP won at the 2020 parliamentary election after being routed in the poll following the split in the party. He contested the election from the Colombo District and lost his parliamentary seat which he had held since 1977 but took oaths as the National List MP in June 2021.
This is the sixth time the 73-year-old UNP leader has been sworn in as Prime Minister, the first being in 1993. He is also the 26th Prime Minister of Sri Lanka.
His appointment was opposed by prominent members of the clergy as well as those in opposition who alleged Wickremesinghe does not represent the aspirations of the people. However, Wickremesinghe countered his critics and opponents.
“(British Prime Minister Winston) Churchill had only four members with him back in 1939.How did he become Prime Minister? Because there was a crisis. I have done the same,” Wickremesinghe said when the media asked him about the legitimacy of him taking up the post with a single seat in parliament.
He spoke briefly to journalists after the religious ceremonies where he said he had “taken on the job to put the economy in order,” Wickremesinghe told journalists after seeking blessings of the triple gem at the Walukarama temple and Gangaramaya temple in Colombo soon after the swearing in.
Wickremesinghe also took a dig at the main opposition Samagi Jana Balawegaya (SJB) in his remarks. “If I could do this with one seat, if I had 50 members, I would have shaken the Government. I have come here, and I will do the job and show. What can I do if the SJB has 50 seats in parliament and can’t take power?” Wickremesinghe queried.
The Prime Minister also dismissed questions over working with Rajapaksa’s sans a mandate and amidst calls for a national Government. “Do you want people to suffer more by a prolonged political instability or resolve the economic crisis and shortage of essentials and feed the people their three meals. Don’t you want uninterrupted electricity, petrol, or diesel. Not doing so is cheap petty politics,” Wickremesinghe told journalists.
“We can’t do it alone but need help from other countries and institutions such as the IMF. We must return to a nation enjoying three meals per day, garner value for the Rupee and secure a future for the youth,” the Premier stressed.
Though holding a sole seat, Wickremesinghe expressed confidence of winning majority support from both the ruling benches and Opposition in Parliament.
He also said the GotaGoHome protests should continue without any hindrance and the Police should not interfere with the protestors. Hours before the new Prime Minister was to take oaths, SJB leader Sajith Premadasa sent a letter to the President saying he is prepared to take over as Prime Minister based on four conditions which included a definitive time period within which Rajapaksa would step down from his post.
At a hurriedly summoned press conference, Premadasa said his party has a sustainable program to rescue the economy from further collapse and would take over as Prime Minister if the President agreed to several conditions.
The letter was dispatched to the President’s Office after he signed it in the presence of several SJB MPs but by then plans for Wickremesinghe’s swearing in had been finalised.
Since the start of anti-Rajapaksa protests a month ago amidst the worsening economic situation, the President had invited the Premadasa who is the Leader of the Opposition in Parliament to take over as Prime Minister several times but till Wednesday he had stood firm that he would not be part of an administration in which any Rajapaksa holds power.
However, by Wednesday and early part of Thursday when the SJB softened its stance and decided to work with the President for an interim period, the President had decided to appoint Wickremesinghe as the Premier.
A new multi-party Cabinet is expected to be sworn in shortly.