Protests resumed in Sri Lanka’s capital Colombo Wednesday shortly after lawmakers elected the country’s widely unpopular prime minister and acting president, Ranil Wickremesinghe, as the new president. Wickremesinghe’s election to the country’s highest office predictably infuriated the protesters, who spent weeks staging demonstrations in Colombo demanding that both he and the former president resign over their perceived mismanagement of the country’s economy.
Wickremesinghe replaces Gotabaya Rajapaksa, a political ally who fled the country last week before formally resigning in the face of the widespread protests over a months-long economic crisis that has left many Sri Lankans struggling to find or afford basic necessities like food and fuel.
Protesters gathered outside the presidential office in Colombo on Wednesday afternoon, chanting the now-familiar refrain, “Go, Ranil, go
Wickremesinghe was elected by parliamentarians in a process laid out in Sri Lanka’s constitution to serve for the remainder of ex-President Rajapaksa’s term, until 2024. He has been prime minister six times but never president.
Rajapaksa first flew to the Maldives and then to Singapore last week before officially tendering his resignation.
Both men have been the targets of the protests for weeks, and they remain hugely unpopular among Sri Lankans, who blame them for mismanaging the country’s economy.
“He is not popular with the public,” Nilanthi Samanarayake, a research director and Asia expert at the Washington thinktank CNA, told CBS News on Wednesday. “He is still, though, a veteran Sri Lankan politician… and today he received the most votes in parliament.”
But while the country’s lawmakers may have chosen him, the mood on the streets was unambiguous. The demonstrators see both Wickremesinghe and Rajapaksa as stalwarts of the country’s political elite, and the protests were expected to grow over the coming days.
Last week, months of simmering anti-government demonstrations reached a crescendo when protesters stormed and occupied the official residence of the president and the office of the prime minister. Wickremesinghe’s residence was also set on fire.
If Wickremesinghe manages to stay in power despite the protesters beating on his door, his biggest, most immediate challenge will be lifting the country out of the bankruptcy that has made the lives of common Sri Lankans such a struggle.
For months, people have faced acute shortages of electricity, gas and food as the country’s cash reserves have run extremely low, leaving the government simply unable to purchase imports.
According to Samanarayake, the public’s scorn for their leaders is not entirely misplaced.
“The economic crisis was a long time coming after decades of poor management of the economy and a failure to adapt to sustainable debt management practices, to the point where the country defaulted on its debt for the first time in its history in April,” she told CBS News.
Rajapaksa and Wickremesinghe both blamed the COVID-19 pandemic for depriving Sri Lanka of its vital tourism income, but their political foes have pointed also at corruption, and the economic mismanagement noted by Samanarayake, as multiplying factors behind the country’s woes.
Soon after Rajapaksa’s exit, when he took over as the acting president, Wickremesinghe appeared to suggest there was a conspiracy against the political leadership in Sri Lanka, and he ordered the military to do whatever was necessary to restore order and “end this fascist threat to democracy.”
“We can’t allow the destruction of state property… we can’t allow fascists to take over,” he said as he declared a state of emergency. It wasn’t immediately clear if he would stick to that hard line as the protests resumed on Wednesday.
Much will likely hinge on his ability to quickly secure 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, seeking a $3 billion bailout package.
“Even though he is not popular at home, he does have credibility and relationships with international stakeholders, and the discussions with the IMF now have a fighting chance now that stability has been restored to the political process,” Samanarayake told CBS News.
( Curtesy CBS News)