Dinesh Gunawardena: Rajapaksa ally and president’s schoolmate is Sri Lanka’s new PM

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Veteran politician Dinesh Gunawardena has been sworn in as the new prime minister of Sri Lanka amid the ongoing economic and political turmoil in the country.

The 73-year-old is the leader of the Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP) political party and has served as an MP, cabinet minister and leader of the house in parliament.

Mr Gunawardena took oath on Friday along with 17 other members of the new cabinet in the presence of president Ranil Wickremesinghe, who also briefly served as prime minister just months back, reported the Sri Lankan newspaper Daily Mirror.

His appointment comes as the prime minister’s post fell vacant after Mr Wickremesinghe, 73, was sworn in as the nation’s eighth president on Thursday after winning a parliamentary vote on Wednesday.

Mr Gunawardena has earlier served as the country’s foreign minister and education minister.

In April, he was made home minister by the previous president Gotabaya Rajapaksa.

He has also been a close ally of the Rajapaksa family, which ruled Sri Lanka for almost two decades.

The new prime minister is also Mr Wickremesinghe’s schoolmate.

Hailing from an influential family, Mr Gunawardena’s father Phillip was a prominent figure in the leftist socialist movement in the British era, prior to the country’s independence in 1948.

His elder brother Indika, who served as a cabinet minister 1994 to 2001, was born in Bombay (present day Mumbai) in 1943 when his parents went into hiding in India after revolting against British rule, reported Press Trust of India.

In 1979, Mr Gunawardena succeeded his father in becoming the head of the party.

He became an MP for the first time in 1983 after winning from the Colombo suburb of Maharagama. He became a cabinet minister for the first time in 2000.

While he has known the president since the age of three, their politics have been different.

While Mr Wickremesinghe has propagated free market policies, Mr Gunawardena has been in favour of larger state control over the economy.

His proximity to the Rajapaksas, however, could anger the public in Sri Lanka, which has seen historic protests for months against the former president who fled the country last week and emailed his resignation.

The cash strapped country has been suffering from food, medicine and fuel shortages for months and its economy has collapsed.

Mr Gunawardena’s appointment on Friday came hours after security forces cleared the Galle Face protest camp near the presidential palace in Colombo and arrested protesters.

He faces the uphill task of trying to resolve the economic crisis plaguing the country amid ongoing negotiations with the International Monetary Fund (IMF) for a bailout package.

The country has a $51bn foreign debt.

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