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Protests resume in Sri Lanka as unpopular premier Ranil Wickremesinghe tapped as new president

Protests resumed in Sri Lanka’s capital Colombo on Wednesday soon after lawmakers elected the country’s widely unpopular prime minister and caretaker President Ranil Wickremesinghe as the new president. Wickremesinghe’s election to the country’s highest office angered protesters who spent weeks staging demonstrations in Colombo demanding that both he and the former president resign over their alleged mismanagement of the country’s economy.

Wickremesinghe replaces Gotabaya Rajapaksa, a political aide who fled the country last week and formally resigned in the face of widespread protests over a month-long economic crisis that has left many Sri Lankans lacking food and fuel. Had to struggle to find or afford basic necessities.

Protesters gathered outside the presidential office in Colombo on Wednesday afternoon, chanting the now familiar slogan, “Go, Ranil, go!”

Sri Lankan Parliament elects new President
Protesters protest against newly elected Sri Lankan President Ranil Wickremesinghe outside the presidential office on July 20, 2022 in Colombo, Sri Lanka.

Buddhika Wirasinghe/Bloomberg/Getty


Wickremesinghe was elected by parliamentarians to serve the remainder of former President Rajapaksa’s term until 2024 in a process stipulated in the Sri Lankan Constitution. He was prime minister six times but never president.

Rajapaksa first flew to the Maldives and then to Singapore last week before officially resigning.

Both men have been the target of protests for weeks, and are extremely unpopular among Sri Lankans, who blame them for the mismanagement of the country’s economy.

“He is not popular with the masses,” Nilanti Samanarayake, a research director and Asia expert at Washington thinktank CNA, told CBS News on Wednesday. “However, he is still a veteran Sri Lankan politician … and today he got the most votes in parliament.”

Sri Lanka-Politics-Unrest-Economy
Sri Lanka’s newly elected President Ranil Wickremesinghe addresses reporters during a visit to the Gangaramaya Buddhist Temple in Colombo on July 20, 2022.

ARUN SHANKAR/AFP/GETTY


But the MPs of the country may have elected him, but the mood on the streets was not clear. Protesters see both Wickremesinghe and Rajapaksa as stalwarts of the country’s political elite, and protests were expected to escalate in the coming days.

Last week, months of anti-government protests reached a climax when Protesters stormed and captured The official residence of the President and the office of the Prime Minister. Wickremesinghe’s residence was also set ablaze.

If Wickremesinghe manages to stay in power despite being thrashed at his door by protesters, his biggest, most immediate challenge will be to lift the country out of the bankruptcy that has made the lives of ordinary Sri Lankans such a struggle.


What’s next for Sri Lanka after the President’s resignation

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For months, people have been facing severe shortages of electricity, gas and food as the country’s cash reserves are depleted, leaving the government unable to buy imports.

According to Samarayke, the public’s disdain for its leaders is not entirely wrong.

“The economic crisis that followed decades of poor management of the economy and failure to adapt to sustainable debt management practices was a long one, to the point where the country defaulted on its debt in April for the first time in its history,” she said. told CBS News.

Both Rajapaksa and Wickremesinghe blamed the COVID-19 pandemic for depriving Sri Lanka of its vital tourism income, but their political foes also pointed to corruption and economic mismanagement as several factors behind the country’s woes.

APTOPIX Sri Lanka
People gather at the official residence of then-President Gotabaya Rajapaksa for the second day after the storm in Colombo, Sri Lanka on July 11, 2022.

Jayawardene/AP


Soon after Rajapaksa’s exit, when he took over as acting president, Wickremesinghe suggested there was a conspiracy against the political leadership in Sri Lanka, and ordered the military to do whatever was necessary to restore order. and “end this fascist threat to democracy.”

Declaring a state of emergency, he said, “We cannot allow state property to be destroyed… We cannot let the fascists take over.” It was not immediately clear whether he would stick to that hard line as protests resumed on Wednesday.

Much will depend on their ability to quickly receive support from the International Monetary Fund as a financial lifeline for Sri Lanka’s economy. Wickremesinghe played a key role in talks with the IMF as prime minister, demanding a $3 billion bailout package.

Samanarayake told CBS News, “Even though he is not popular at home, he has credibility and relationships with international stakeholders, and discussions with the IMF now have a fighting chance that stability has been restored to the political process.” Is.”

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