Sri Lankan president sworn into office as country grapples with crisis

Wickremesinghe called for politicians to work together and pleaded for the country to move on



By Qadijah Irshad

Published: Thu 21 Jul 2022, 10:20 AM

Last updated: Thu 21 Jul 2022, 1:32 PM

Sri Lanka swore in a new president on Thursday amidst a paralyzed economy, street protests, hunger and unrest.

Six-time prime minister Ranil Wickremesinghe was sworn in at a heavily guarded Parliament complex after protesters vowed on Wednesday that they will “not allow him to take oaths”.

Wickremesinghe was voted in as president on Wednesday in a Parliamentary election after Gotabaya Rajapaksa, fled the country last week, and then resigned as president amidst growing protests.

Much to the chagrin of protesters and opposition party members, Wickremesinghe received 134 of the 219 valid votes, backed by the Rajapaksa-led ruling party. Despite 45 years in politics, Wickremesinghe has fallen from grace as he is seen as protecting the Rajapaksa family that has been blamed for the current crippling economic crisis in Sri Lanka.

Soon after the Parliament announced his win, Wickremesinghe told reporters, “I am not a friend of the Rajapaksas, I am a friend of the people.”

But at the protest site near the presidential secretariat which is still under the control of protesters after they took over several government buildings last week, the protesters and the general public say otherwise.

“He has been covering up Rajapaksas’ crimes for years now, we have no faith in him,” said Melanie Sivasundaram, a housewife belonging to the minority Tamil community, who visited the site near the seafront promenade. “The Rajapaksas should be held accountable for the billions of dollars they have stolen from us, the war crimes committed against the Tamils, the murders, but I bet they’ll all go scot free now that their guardian is president.”

The handful of protesters at the hitherto bustling site, though subdued, say they are willing to carry on the struggle.

“We haven’t given up our fight to get Ranil to go, just like we got Gota (Gotabaya Rajapaksa) and Mahinda (Rajapaksa, then prime minister) to go,” said Pradeep Kumara, a protester.

Yet despite the bravado, Wickremesinghe’s promise on Wednesday to crack down on violence is too close for comfort for the men and women who call themselves The Struggle.

“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 told reporters.

“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.”

The system change has already begun.

More military presence is evident at the protest site on Thursday and Devinda Lakshan, a 28-year-old protester, told Khaleej Times that the Struggled movement has filed against a court order to remove the tents of protesters surrounding the presidential secretariat.

But not everyone wants Wickremesinghe to leave.

“He’s educated, with a good understanding of policies and most importantly, he can negotiate with the international community for aid, which is what we need right now for our country,” said Raveesha Fernando, a Chartered accountant who is spending his fourth day in a fuel queue. “We are never getting back all the money the Rajapaksas stole. We just need some stability right now, and stop this crisis. As much as I hate to say it, Ranil might be our man right now.”

Wickremesinghe said on Monday that the negotiations with the IMF were nearing a conclusion, and talks on help from other countries had also progressed. He added that the government had taken steps to resolve shortages of fuel and cooking gas.

On Wednesday, IMF Managing Director Kristalina Georgieva told financial magazine Nikkei Asia that the organization hoped to complete the rescue talks “as quickly as possible.”

On Monday, in his capacity as acting president, Wickremesinghe declared a state of emergency that gave him broad authority to act in the interest of public security and order. Authorities can carry out searches and detain people, and Wickremesinghe can also change or suspend any law. The Parliament can regularly review the law and it will expire without its approval.

Presidents in Sri Lanka are normally elected by the public. The responsibility falls to the Parliament only if the presidency becomes vacant before the term officially ends. This has happened once before, in 1993, when the then-Prime Minister Dingiri Banda Wijetunga was chosen by Parliament uncontested, after the assassination of the former President Ranasinghe Premadasa, the father of the current opposition leader.

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