Senior politician and staunch Rajapaksa loyalist Dinesh Gunawardena on Friday became the third Prime Minister to lead Sri Lanka in the last three months, amid political turbulence sparked by a worsening economic crisis.
Mr. Gunawardena and an 18-member “continuity Cabinet” was sworn in on Friday morning, in the presence of President Ranil Wickremesinghe, who was elected to the country’s top office through a parliamentary vote earlier this week. While most Ministers were part of the last Cabinet under President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, Mr. Wickremesinghe will hold the Defence and Finance portfolios. Ali Sabry, who was earlier Justice and Finance Minister, will now head the Foreign Affairs Ministry.
The Prime Minister and the all-male Cabinet were sworn in hours after a pre-dawn military raid at Colombo’s main anti-government agitation site, in which at least nine persons, including activists, journalists and lawyers, were brutally assaulted by soldiers, despite protesters promising to vacate the area by Friday 2 p.m.
Mr. Gunawardena succeeds Mr. Wickremesinghe, who was hand-picked by Mr. Gotabaya for the job in May, after Mahinda Rajapaksa resigned from the post, amid soaring public outrage against the Rajapaksa clan. Citizens held the former first family chiefly responsible for the meltdown that left them scrambling for essentials.
A Rajapaksa loyalist
Son of iconic Marxist politician Philip Gunawardena, Sri Lanka’s newly appointed Premier began his political activism as a leftist and trade unionist but has been in the Rajapaksa camp for some two decades now. Mr. [Dinesh] Gunawardena has held ministerial portfolios including Education, Foreign Affairs and Labour in different Rajapaksa governments, and was Leader of the House from January 2020. He is known for his support for the executive presidency, and opposition to greater power-sharing with Tamils. Mr. Gunawardena, 73, was a classmate of Mr. Wickremesinghe at Colombo’s Royal College, an elite public school. Speaking in Parliament after Mr. Wickremesinghe’s recent election, he said: “Although the President [Ranil Wickremesinghe] and I have followed different ideologies, we are both committed to our country.”
Six-time Prime Minister Mr. Wickremesinghe’s unlikely rise to presidency came on the heels of a sensational protest on July 9, which saw several thousand citizens storm the Presidential Secretariat and palace, forcing Mr. Gotabaya to flee the island nation and resign.
Mr. Wickremesinghe, who was the sole MP from his United National Party, relies on the support of the Rajapaksas’ Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna [SLPP or People’s Front], which also backed him in Wednesday’s parliamentary vote for presidency. Alleging he is a “Rajapaksa backer”, many Sri Lankans widely resent the leader and continue demanding his resignation, but Mr. Wickremesinghe’s position appears secure at least for the immediate future, since he now enjoys unbridled executive powers and the support of the largest party in the legislature.
Xi congratulates Ranil
In the first outreach yet from a world leader, Chinese President Xi Jinping on Friday sent a message of congratulations to President Wickremesinghe. It stood out after most Colombo-based diplomatic missions and the UN, in their tweets following his election, noted or acknowledged the development, short of congratulating him.
According to China’s official news agency Xinhua, Mr. Xi “stressed” that under the leadership of President Wickremesinghe, Sri Lanka will “surely overcome temporary difficulties and push forward the process of economic and social recovery.” The Chinese President also said he would like to “provide support and assistance as his capacity allows” to President Wickremesinghe and the Sri Lankan people, the agency reported.
Meanwhile, Mr. Wickremesinghe briefed Colombo-based diplomats in a series of meetings on Friday evening. It is learnt that when participants voiced concern over the use of military force on peaceful protesters, Mr. Wickremesinghe “staunchly defended” the move, as a source familiar with the discussion put it. Further, despite growing calls for elections from protesters, who assert the current parliament “no more represents the people”, the President reportedly ruled out elections until 2024, contending that the country would need time to negotiate and implement an International Monetary Fund (IMF) package for economic recovery.