Will Sri Lanka’s New Prime Minister Be Able to Steer a Troubled Country?

A new prime minister, Ranil Wickremesinghe, has taken charge in Sri Lanka but there are doubts about whether he can restore political stability to a country wracked by civil unrest and on the verge of bankruptcy, according to analysts.

Others say he has the experience to handle the severe economic crisis confronting the island nation.

Wickremesinghe was appointed to the post after President Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s elder brother, Mahinda Rajapaksa, stepped down as prime minister earlier this week following deadly violence triggered by attacks on anti-government protesters by his supporters.

This is the sixth stint for Wickremesinghe as prime minister, although he has never completed a full term in office. The 73-year-old veteran politician last held the post for about four years until 2019.

“We want to return the nation to a position where our people will again have three meals a day,” Wickremesinghe said after being sworn in. “I have taken on a challenge of uplifting the economy and I must fulfil it.”

The challenges he faces are immense. Sri Lanka is running out of money to import food and fuel. Shortages and surging inflation have led to huge hardships for ordinary people. In the streets of Colombo, his appointment has not appeased protesters, who have vowed to press on with their campaign for the ouster of President Rajapaksa.

“People have been calling for a system change, loudly and clearly. Wickremesinghe’s appointment does not address that demand so there is anger among people,” says Bhavani Fonseka, senior researcher at the Center for Policy Alternatives in Colombo. “He is seen as close to the Rajapaksas’ and has no credibility. So, the political stalemate in the country continues.”

The prime minister’s first challenge will be to prove his majority in parliament but rallying legislators behind him will be a tough task.

He is the lone representative in parliament of his United National Party – in his own words “a party of one.” He does not command much support within the opposition and, while he will need the support of rival parties, so far, his efforts to reach out to the opposition have not made much headway.

The opposition has been insisting that the president must step down and the sweeping powers of the executive presidency be curbed before they join a unity government.

“People are not asking for political games and deals, they want a new system that will safeguard their future,” prominent opposition leader Harsh de Silva said in a statement.

However, some analysts note that while Wickremesinghe does not have much political capital, he might be well placed to handle the economic crisis the country faces. He is a seasoned politician, who has built strong links during his political career with the international community, including India and Japan, and is well placed to negotiate with the International Monetary Fund, from whom Sri Lanka is seeking a bailout.

Sri Lanka’s central bank head warned this week the economy was just days away from “collapse without redemption” unless a new government was urgently appointed.

“Wickremesinghe will be a good crisis manager and has very good understanding of the nature of the economic problems and what needs to be done,” said Murtaza Jafferjee, chair of Advocata Institute, a research organization in Colombo. “He has connections with India and Japan that could help secure financing that the country needs.”

In recent weeks, the country has been relying on credit lines from allies like India to buy basic necessities. On Friday, Wickremesinghe met with the Indian and Japanese envoys.

In an interview with the BBC, the new prime minister described the Sri Lankan economy as “broken,” but he said his message was to “be patient, I will bring things back.”

However, Wickremesinghe’s lack of political legitimacy poses a problem.

“In the eyes of the people, he will be seen as a person who made a deal with the Rajapaksas,” said Jafferjee.

The powerful Rajapaksa political family is the target of massive public anger in a country where they are being blamed for economic mismanagement and corruption.

Former Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa was evacuated from his residence and taken to a naval base in the north after anti-government protesters stormed his home earlier this week.

Violence that gripped the country killed nine people and led to soldiers being deployed on the streets of the capital.

His brother, the president, however, has defied calls to resign. In an address to the nation on Wednesday, he promised to hand over much of the powers of the powerful presidency, appoint a new prime minister and a “young cabinet without any Rajapaksas.”

But analysts say that has neither appeased the public nor convinced the opposition to join a unity government.

“There are a lot of questions on how Wickremesinghe got appointed when opposition parties had indicated that they were ready to form a government on certain conditions such as President Rajapaksa stepping down,” says Fonseka. “After all, he commands only one seat in parliament.”

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