Wickremesinghe sworn in as new Lanka PM amid historic deal

Wickremesinghe sworn in as new Lanka PM amid historic deal
Ranil Wickremesinghe was sworn in today as Sri Lanka's prime minister as President Maithripala Sirisena's party, in a historic deal, backed his national unity government which pledged to introduce a new constitution for ethnic harmony in an attempt to reach out to minorities, including Tamils.

66-year-old Wickremesinghe took the oath of office for the fourth time at the Presidential Secretariat this morning in the presence of Sirisena following which the premier's United National Party (UNP) and the president's Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) signed a power-sharing deal.

This is the first time Sri Lanka's history that two rival political parties have joined hands to govern the country still grappling with challenges in the aftermath of the three- decade-long civil war with the LTTE.

Wickremesinghe's victory in Monday's parliamentary polls thwarted a political comeback by Lanka's former strongman Mahinda Rajapaksa amid a surge in popularity for his reform- driven mandate.

The Memorandum of Understanding (MoU), that was immediately after Wickremesinghe's induction in office, has proposed to set up a constitutional assembly to draw up a new constitution that will ensure ethnic harmony and reconciliation with safeguards on human rights.

The new premier has struck a conciliatory note appealing to all political parties to work together to heal the divisions of the past as he began piecing together the new government with possible support from minority Tamils.

His UNP won 106 seats in Monday's parliamentary election, just 7 short of a simple majority in the 225-member assembly but enough to form a government.
The SLFP had yesterday decided to join the national government with the UNP for two years.

The new government said it will also introduce electoral reform to scrap the current proportional representation system of elections. Sri Lanka will adhere to a policy of non-alignment in foreign policy, it said.

The government framework will be based on fundamentals of good governance and respect to rule of law.

The two parties will stop crossovers from either side during the period of the MoU. The SLFP will, thus, provide Wickremesinghe with a working majority.

The two parties have been bitter rivals for decades and such cooperation is unusual in Sri Lankan politics. Today's development also marks a major turnaround for the island that was firmly in the longtime president Rajapaksa's grip until his surprise defeat in the January 8 presidential polls.

Wickremesinghe had contested from the Colombo district and secured his victory polling 500,506 votes, the highest for a candidate in the country's elections history.

He became the prime minister for the fourth time in his political career, having previously held the post from 1993-94, 2002-2004 and since January of this year.

A lawyer by profession, the veteran reformist has set a record of holding an MP position continuously without losing his seat in Parliament for 38 years.

Wickremesinghe, whose reform agenda was stalled due to Mahinda Rajapaksa's loyalists blocking some of his moves, now has teeth to get his way in enforcement of his plans after his victory.

69-year-old Rajapaksa, political rival of both Sirisena and Wickremesinghe, was also present during the ceremony and both Sirisena and Wickremesinghe shook hands with him.

Rajapaksa, whose dreams of securing power shattered, will now sit in the opposition with a dissident group of loyalists.

He was given a party ticket to contest the polls despite opposition from Sirisena but got elected as an MP with a massive personal preference vote of over 4,00,000.

His SLFP earlier opposed any concessions to the Tamils but now appears open to constitutional reforms to address minority rights and achieve reconciliation in the country that still bears the scars of the separatist war.

The minority Tamil National Alliance (TNA) that swept the ethnic Tamil-majority Northern and Eastern provinces with 16 seats has said it will provide outside support to the unity government.

Analysts say Sirisena and Wickremesinghe are set to face major hurdles both at the international and domestic fronts.

The UN Human Rights body is to release its report on Sri Lanka's war crimes accountability next month. The new government will also have to tackle the tricky problem of granting devolution of powers to Tamil regions.

The Tamils, who are opposed to Rajapaksa's Sinhala nationalist rule, had backed Sirisena in large numbers in the presidential election.

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