Sri Lanka's newly elected president sworn into office

Wickremesinghe was elected president on Wednesday by lawmakers who opted for a veteran leader to lead the country out of economic collapse, despite widespread public opposition. Credit: AP

Veteran politician Ranil Wickremesinghe was sworn in as Sri Lanka's new president on Thursday despite his lack of popularity amongst the public as the nation endures an unprecedented economic crisis. Sri Lankans have taken to the streets for months to demand their top leaders step down to take responsibility for economic chaos that has left the nation's 22 million people struggling with shortages of essentials, including medicine, fuel and food.

While the protesters have focused on the Rajapaksa political dynasty, Wickremesinghe also has drawn their ire as a perceived Rajapaksa surrogate. The six-time prime minister had never held the top job.

But he easily won the secret ballot of lawmakers on Wednesday to finish the term of former President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, who fled the country after protesters stormed his residence last week and resigned. Wickremesinghe, 73, has wide experience in diplomatic and international affairs and has been overseeing the bailout talks with the International Monetary Fund. Lawmakers apparently considered him the safer hands to lead the nation through the crisis, despite public anger at Wickremesinghe as an example of the nation's problematic political establishment.

During demonstrations last week, crowds set his personal residence on fire and occupied his office.

In an eyewitness report, ITV News filmed alongside protesters as they stormed the offices last week

After Wednesday's vote, Wickremesinghe called for politicians to work together and pleaded for the country to move on. But protesters flocked to the presidential office instead, chanting, “Ranil, go home!” Wickremesinghe took his oath of office on Thursday morning before Chief Justice Jayantha Jayasuriya at a ceremony held in Parliament in the capital, Colombo.

He now can choose a new prime minister. In an example of the troubles caused by the economic crisis, a power outage hampered live coverage of the swearing-in ceremony at Parliament. On Monday, in his role as acting president, Wickremesinghe declared a state of emergency that gave him broad authority to act in the interest of public security and order.

Authorities can carry out searches and detain people, and Wickremesinghe can also change or suspend any law.

Parliament can regularly review the law and it will expire without its approval. Presidents in Sri Lanka are normally elected by the public. The responsibility falls to Parliament only if the presidency becomes vacant before the term officially ends.

It has happened once before, in 1993, when then-Prime Minister Dingiri Banda Wijetunga was chosen by Parliament uncontested after former President Ranasinghe Premadasa, father of the current opposition leader, was assassinated.

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