Sri Lanka's prime minister sworn in as 2 parties sign deal

AP News
Posted: Aug 21, 2015 11:06 AM

COLOMBO, Sri Lanka (AP) — Sri Lanka's new prime minister, Ranil Wickremesinghe, was sworn in Friday and the island nation's two major political parties — formerly bitter rivals — signed an agreement to work together and draft a new constitution that would safeguard the rights of ethnic groups.

The cooperation is a hopeful sign in tackling the country's most pressing challenges — national reconciliation after a long and brutal civil war and overcoming economic hardships borne from the conflict.

Wickremesinghe's victory in Monday's parliamentary elections thwarted a political comeback by the country's former strongman president, Mahinda Rajapaksa, seven months after he lost a presidential re-election bid.

Wickremsinghe, a lawmaker since 1977, has already served three times as prime minister, a position second to the president. He was sworn in before President Maithripala Sirisena at a ceremony at the president's office where the agreement was signed between Wickremesinghe's United National Party and Sirisena's Sri Lanka Freedom Party.

The UNP won 106 seats in Monday's elections, seven short of a majority in the 225-member Parliament. The agreement between the UNP and the SLFP, which won 95 seats, enables Wickremesighe to secure a majority and form a government.

In the agreement, seen by The Associated Press, the parties pledge to strengthen democracy and foreign relations, fight corruption, and improve health and education.

They have been bitter rivals for decades, and such cooperation is unusual in Sri Lankan politics. An earlier agreement to cooperate between a president and a prime minister elected from different parties ended after bickering.

On Wednesday, Wickremesinghe pledged to build a consensus on national policies and invited all political parties to work together, either by accepting ministerial positions or through parliamentary committees.

Sirisena broke away from Rajapaksa's government last year and won the Jan. 8 presidential election with support from Wickremesinghe, who was opposition leader at the time.

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In Sri Lanka, the prime minister acts for the president when he is absent and replaces him if he is impeached, incapacitated or dies. The president has wide executive powers and usually holds the defense, foreign relations and sometimes finance portfolios. The prime minister heads lawmaking and has some governance powers.

Rajapaksa accepted the results and announced that he will continue to engage in politics.

Since his presidential loss, there has been a sharp reversal of fortunes for Rajapaksa, his family and friends, who were once all-powerful controllers of the nation. Some now face investigations or lawsuits on allegations of corruption, misuse of power and even murder.