Sri Lanka protests: Why veteran prime minister has taken on job no-one else wants

It says a lot about the job ahead when even the head of a politician’s own party admits that he has been given the position because nobody else wants it.

“It is a terrible time to be the prime minister in Sri Lanka,” Sagala Ratnayaka, national organiser of Sri Lankan party the UNP told Al-Jazeera, of the expected appointment of five-times PM Ranil Wickremesinghe to lead the country, which is currently in a state of emergency, with arson attacks, rioting and widespread protests, which have seen 300 people injured and nine killed.

"No one (else) was taking this challenge. This will be his toughest run.”

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Mr Wickremesinghe will be taking on a country deep in its worst economic crisis since it became independent in 1948. The government is unable to import basic food items, leaving many people unable to eat, while hospitals are being forced to cancel treatment due to a lack of medical supplies and medicines and residents are suffering lengthy power cuts.

People buy vegetables at a market after authorities relaxed the ongoing curfew for a few hours in Colombo on Thursday.
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Nationwide protests - which have seen mass arson attacks on buildings connected to the former ruling Rajapaksa family, who have been at the head of Sri Lankan politics for most of the last 17 years, despite a two day curfew on the island - have been calling for the resignations of President Gotabaya Rajapaksa and his brother, Mahinda. Despite a rise to power in 2005, after defeating the Tamil Tiger insurgency, Mahinda this week became the fourth member of his family to resign from government, following his two brothers and son, Namal, all government ministers.

His leadership was marred by allegations of human rights and war crime abuses, as well as a long-running scandal surrounding the misuse of public funds to create a museum dedicated to the Rajapaksa family, which was destroyed by rioters earlier this week.

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The protests have resulted in clashes with pro-government supporters in violence which allegedly killed a ruling party MP.

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Following his resignation, Mahinda and his family were evacuated from his official residence through thousands of protesters trying to break into the heavily guarded, colonial-era building. A group of protesters have gathered outside a well-fortified naval base in Trincomalee on the north-east coast claiming the Rajapaksa family was being protected there, although that has not been confirmed. A court has since banned the former prime minister, his son and 15 allies from leaving the island.

President Rajapaksa, however, has vowed to stay in post, remaining in his heavily guarded official residence and has insisted that he will restore order in the country after appointing a new prime minister and cabinet. He did, however, give up most of his executive powers as a concession towards protests and said he would “make room” for discussions over his own resignation – but urged people to “keep the state machinery going” in times of crisis.

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Reports on Thursday suggested that Mr Wickremesinghe was to be sworn in to the role of prime minister in a low key ceremony on Thursday.

Sri Lanka is on the verge of bankruptcy after suspending payment of $7bn of foreign loans it was due to pay this year out of a $25bn due by 2026. Sri Lankan negotiators are scheduled to begin talks with the International Monetary Fund this week.

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The nationwide curfew was temporarily lifted on Thursday.

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