COLOMBO (Sri Lanka) -- Ranil Wickremesinghe, the prime minister of Sri Lanka, has been in office for almost three weeks. He was given a difficult mandate to rescue the country that is struggling from an economic crisis.
Five-time prime minister has inherited an economy that is on the verge of bankruptcy and has so much foreign debt that it doesn't have enough money to import basic necessities. Sri Lankans struggle to get basic necessities such as food, fuel, medicine and cooking gas, and even matches and toilet paper.
Wickremesinghe was clear about the challenges ahead in his new job. He said that the next few months would be the most difficult in our lives. This was a statement he made to the nation tired of long lines, skyrocketing inflation, and daily protests that seemed out of control.
"We have to be prepared to face these challenges and make sacrifices."
The seasoned politician who also serves the role of finance minister has been engaging in difficult negotiations with financial institutions and lenders, allies, as well as United Nations agencies, to help fill the gaps and provide relief for impatient citizens.
He has taken the necessary steps to raise taxes and has promised to overhaul government that focuses power under President Gotabaya Rajapaksa. This model is believed to have contributed to the crisis.
After days of protests, Wickremesinghe took power. His brother Mahinda, President Gotaba Rajapakasa, had to resign and flee from the wrathful crowds at a naval station. Wickremesinghe will deliver the much-anticipated speech in Parliament on Tuesday. Many hope that it will show a strategy for resolving the crisis.
However, time is not on his side because reforms are slow and people need results immediately. After a humiliating defeat at the 2020 election, he is now a one-man Party in Parliament.
Dayan Jayatilleka is a former diplomat, political analyst and said that "a person without a political base has a crisis unprecedented to manage."
The lines to purchase fuel and cooking oil have stretched for kilometers every day, winding around blocks. Sri Lankans are used to enduring heavy rains and scorching heat in order to afford essential items that now cost three times as much. Many end up empty handed, even though they are forced to wait for days.
Jagath Chandana (43), has been waiting outside Colombo's capital with a canister of cooking gas for two whole days. It has been insane. We are completely helpless. Ranil seems unable to resolve the crisis. He said that politicians talk, but people are still suffering."
Protesters have been occupying Rajapaksa’s office for more than 50 days demanding that he step down.
According to them, economic mismanagement and policy blunders such as a hasty ban of imported chemical fertilizers that would have devastated crops, along with a government stocked full of Rajapaksa family members caused the crisis. Six Rajapaksas held government positions at their peak of power. The crisis saw the departure of one Rajapaksa. Five of the five remaining Rajapaksas are still in office as legislators.
Sri Lanka has stopped paying nearly $7 billion of its foreign debt. Out of a total $51 billion, it owes $26 million through 2026.
While Wickremsinghe is preparing to receive a bailout package through the International Monetary Fund, foreign currency reserves have fallen to only two weeks' worth. He stated that any bridge financing would be dependent on IMF agreements and he was optimistic that negotiations will conclude by June. Wickremsinghe stated last week that the government has set a target of $5 billion to repay and an additional $1 billion to increase its reserves.
Jayatilleka stated that Wickremsinghe was able to bring transparency and reason to such volatile circumstances.
Analysts warn that it will not be easy for him to meet some of these challenges. This is especially true given the messy fight to reform the constitution and to strengthen the power of Parliament to implement much-needed reforms.
"His suggestions are good for the medium and long-term. However, people want immediate change and they don't see it," Jehan Perera, a political analyst, said. He also stated that some view Wickremesinghe to be helping Rajapaksa stay in power.
Protesters are demanding not only a new president but also a complete overhaul of what they claim is a flawed governance model.
Sri Lanka has been ruled by a powerful executive presidency system for nearly 45 years. After winning a historic election in 2019, Rajapaksa strengthened his system with constitutional amendments that further concentrated power in the presidency. This move was criticized by some.
Wickremsinghe was a pioneer in attempting to reverse some of the president's powers. However, such measures are not easy to implement and will need approval from the Supreme Court as well as a two-thirds majority of Parliament.
There are still questions about Wickremsinghe's ability to bring reforms through the 225-seat Parliament, where Rajapaksa holds the majority. While some opposition parties have supported the reforms, Wickremsinghe's only standing in the chamber could be a problem. It could also be an asset.
His party split in 2020 due to a leadership crisis. Most of his senior members left and formed a new party, currently the main opposition.
Jayatilleka stated that Jayatilleka has the chance to play the role of technocratic prime Minister with his experience and expertise, which is unconnected to any political parties.
The protests have been decreasing in size since Wickremsinghe took over duties. Perera stated that it was difficult for people to maintain the momentum, but that the demonstrations will continue as long as there is an economic crisis.
Although there are still signs of struggle and financial hardship in Sri Lanka, some people have a growing faith that Wickremsinghe can help them get through these difficult times.
Amila Prasanna, who is a carpenter, said that he can't do miracles and it would take time to solve the crisis. Previous ministers have made mistakes. He said, "He is trying solve the problems one by one and I am certain he will do something", as he waited in line for three days to purchase gas.
Pathi reported from New Delhi.