By Uditha Jayasinghe and Alasdair Pal
COLOMBO (Reuters) -Sri Lanka’s main opposition party joined anti-government protesters on Friday in rejecting the appointment of a new prime minister and insisted the president resign to take responsibility for the country’s disastrous economic crisis.
President Gotabaya Rajapaksa appointed five-time prime minister Ranil Wickremesinghe to his sixth term late on Thursday, but opposition comments signalled it was not likely to resolve the political and economic disarray in the strategic Indian Ocean island nation. A week of violent clashes between protesters and government supporters across the country has left nine people dead and more than 300 wounded. The president’s elder brother, Mahinda Rajapaksa, quit as prime minister on Monday as violence spiralled and is in hiding in a military base.
The rest of the cabinet quit earlier. “It is clear the (new) prime minister is remote controlled by the president,” said Eran Wickramaratne, a parliamentarian and senior member of the main opposition party, the Samagi Jana Balawegaya. “This country wants the Rajapaksas to go home. We are committed to that goal.” Protesters who have camped out at a site near the prime minister’s office for over a month also rejected the appointment.
“We will stop this struggle when our people get justice,” said Chamalage Shivakumar, one of the hundreds of people at the “Gota Go Home” protest site, named after the president. “Whoever they appoint as prime minister, we will not stop this struggle until people get relief.” Wickremesinghe, 73, is the only lawmaker from his United National Party in parliament and will be reliant on rival political parties to form a coalition government. An alliance led by the Rajapaksas holds about 100 of parliament’s 225 seats, while the opposition has 58 seats. The rest are independent.
On Friday, Wickremesinghe held talks with foreign envoys representing India, Japan, the United States and China, his office said. “Discussed continued cooperation for economic recovery and stability in Sri Lanka through democratic processes,” the Indian High Commission in Colombo said in a tweet. New Delhi is battling China for influence in Sri Lanka, which lies on key shipping lanes between Asia and Europe and is home to major infrastructure projects financed by both countries. The prime minister also held an emergency meeting with officials from the energy ministry regarding chronic fuel shortages that have blighted the island for months.
Protesters said the appointment of Wickremesinghe will do little to ease the anger against the president, who they say is ultimately responsible for the worst economic crisis to hit the nation since it became independent from Britain in 1948. Buffeted hard by the pandemic, rising oil prices and populist tax cuts by the Rajapaksa brothers, Sri Lanka is critically low on foreign exchange.
Rampant inflation and fuel shortages brought thousands on to the streets in a month of protests that had remained predominantly peaceful until this week. Sri Lanka’s power regulator on Friday said power cuts had risen on average to five and a half hours per day this week, as no fuel was available for thermal power generation. “A crude oil shipment has been at port for a week but the government has been unable to meet payment. However, we have increased hydro- and renewable energy to about 60% to cover the shortfall,” Public Utilities Commission of Sri Lanka Chairman Janaka Ratnayake said in a statement.