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Crisis-hit Sri Lanka set for new PM, unity government

In this file photo taken on August 02, 2020, United National Party (UNP) party leader Ranil Wickremesinghe waves to supporters during the party’s final campaign rally ahead of the upcoming parliamentary elections in Colombo. — AFP

COLOMBO: Sri Lanka’s president was set to name a new premier Thursday to replace his brother, who was banned from leaving the country after his supporters launched violent attacks on a protest against the nation’s dire economic crisis.

The mooted new premier, Ranil Wickremesinghe, has served in the office five times — but it remains unclear if he will be able to get any legislation through parliament.

In a televised address to the nation on Wednesday night, President Gotabaya Rajapaksa stopped short of yielding to weeks of countrywide protests calling for him to resign over Sri Lanka’s worst downturn since independence.

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

“I will name a prime minister who will command a majority in parliament and the confidence of the people,” Rajapaksa said.

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

This marked a turning point and unleashed several days of chaos and violence in which at least nine people were killed and over 200 injured, with dozens of Rajapaksa loyalist homes set on fire.

Mahinda has since fled the capital Colombo and taken refuge at the Trincomalee naval base on the country’s east coast.

On Thursday, a court banned him, his politician son Namal, and more than a dozen allies from leaving the country after ordering an investigation into the violence.

Security forces patrolling in armoured personnel carriers with orders to shoot looters on sight have largely restored order.

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

‘Collapse beyond redemption’

Sri Lankans have suffered months of severe shortages of food, fuel and medicines — as well as long power cuts — after the country burnt through foreign currency reserves needed to pay for vital imports.

The central bank chief warned Wednesday that the economy will “collapse beyond redemption” unless a new government was urgently appointed.

Wickremesinghe, 73, is seen as a pro-West free-market reformist, potentially making bailout negotiations with the International Monetary Fund and others smoother.

With many from Rajapaksa’s party having defected in recent months, no group in the 225-member assembly has an absolute majority, making parliamentary approval of the unity government’s legislation potentially tricky.

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

“What he has done is despicable, he has brought all of us to this state of hunger and poverty,” Abu Nawaz, a small business owner in Colombo, told AFP.

“What is the point of keeping him as the president?” he added. “Will this end our miseries?”

Wickremesinghe has already been working closely with Rajapaksa to shake up the finance ministry and the central bank to make sweeping policy changes, an official close to their discussions told AFP.

‘We can’t wait any longer’

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

The main opposition SJB party was initially invited to lead a new government, but its leader Sajith Premadasa insisted the president first step down.

In recent days the party has split, with a dozen SJB lawmakers now pledging support to Wickremesinghe.

“We can’t be imposing conditions that cannot be fully met. First, we must address the economic crisis,” said the party’s Harin Fernando.

“We need at least $85 million a week to finance essential imports. We must collectively find a way to raise this money urgently,” he added.

Fernando said he expected a new ministry to be formed by Friday. “We can’t wait any longer,” he added.

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