Sri Lanka holds its breath as new PM fights to save economy
It has been nearly three weeks since Ranil Wickremesinghe took over as prime minister of Sri Lanka with a daunting mandate to pull the crisis-weary country from the brink of an economic abyss that threatens to tear it apart.
The five-time prime minister has inherited a nation barreling toward bankruptcy and saddled with foreign debt so big that it has no money left for basic imports. Sri Lankans are struggling to access the bare necessities like food, fuel, medicine, cooking gas and even toilet paper and matches.
In his new job, Wickremesinghe left little doubt about what lies ahead. "The next couple of months will be the most difficult ones of our lives,” he told the nation fed up with long lines, sky-rocketing inflation and daily protests that seem to be getting out of control.
"We must prepare ourselves to make some sacrifices and face the challenges of this period.”
Since the May 17 televised speech, the seasoned politician, who also serves as the finance minister, has begun difficult negotiations with financial institutions, lenders and allies, and United Nations agencies to fill the coffers and give some relief to impatient citizens.
He has taken necessary steps like raising taxes and has pledged to overhaul government that concentrates power under President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, a model that many believe exacerbated the crisis.
He took over after days of violent protests last month forced his predecessor, President Gotaba Rajapakasa’s brother Mahinda, to step down and seek safety from angry crowds at a naval base. Wickremesinghe is due to deliver a much-awaited speech in Parliament on Tuesday that many hope will showcase a strategy to fix the crisis.
But time may not be on his side as reforms are slow and people want results now. He’s also a one-man party in Parliament — the only lawmaker from his party to hold a seat after it suffered a humiliating defeat in a 2020 election.
"A person who doesn’t have a political base has an unprecedented crisis to manage,” said Dayan Jayatilleka, a former diplomat and political analyst.
Lines to buy fuel and cooking gas have stretched kilometres (miles) every day, snaking around blocks, with Sri Lankans weathering heavy rains and scorching heat to buy essential items that cost three times what they used to. Often, they have to wait days, and many still end up empty-handed.