© Reuters. FILE PHOTO: Ranil Wickremesinghe, newly appointed Prime Minister, arrives at a Buddhist temple after his oath ceremony in the midst of the country’s economic crisis, in Colombo, Sri Lanka, May 12, 2022. REUTERS / Dinuka Liyanawatte / File Photo
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 step down to take responsibility for the country’s catastrophic economic crisis.
President Gotabaya Rajapaksa appointed five-time Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe to his sixth term late Thursday, but opposition comments signaled that it was unlikely to resolve the political and economic turmoil in the strategic island nation of the Indian Ocean.
A week of violent clashes between protesters and government supporters across the country has left nine people dead and more than 300 injured. The president’s older brother, Mahinda Rajapaksa, stepped down as prime minister on Monday as violence spiraled into hiding in a military base.
The rest of the cabinet resigned earlier.
“It is clear that the (new) Prime Minister is remotely controlled by the President,” said Eran Wickramaratne, a Member of Parliament and senior member of the main opposition party, Samagi Jana Balawegaya. “This country wants Rajapaksas to go home. We are committed to that goal.”
Protesters who have been camping at a site near the prime minister’s office for more than a month also rejected the appointment.
“We will stop this fight 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 fight until people get relief.”
Wickremesinghe, 73, is the only lawmaker from his United National Party in parliament and will rely on rival political parties to form a coalition government. An alliance led by Rajapaksas holds about 100 of the 225 seats in parliament, while the opposition holds 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 fighting China for influence in Sri Lanka, which is located on important shipping routes between Asia and Europe and is home to major infrastructure projects funded by both countries.
The Prime Minister also held an emergency meeting with officials from the Ministry of Energy regarding chronic fuel shortages that have devastated the island for several months.
Protesters said the appointment of Wickremesinghe would do little to alleviate anger at the president, who they say is ultimately responsible for the worst economic crisis that has hit the nation since it became independent from Britain in 1948.
Buffet hard by the pandemic, rising oil prices and populist tax cuts by the Rajapaksa brothers, Sri Lanka is critically low on foreign exchange.
Violent inflation and fuel shortages brought thousands to the streets in a month of protests that had remained predominantly peaceful until this week.
Sri Lanka’s power regulator said on Friday that power outages had risen to an average of five and a half hours a day this week as there was no fuel available for thermal electricity generation.
“A shipment has been in port for a week, but the government has not been able to pay. However, we have increased hydropower and renewable energy to around 60% to cover the shortage,” said Sri Lanka’s president of public utilities, Janaka Ratnayake. in a statement.