Sri Lankan President Gotabaya Rajapaksa appoints interim Cabinet
Colombo: Sri Lanka's new President Gotabaya Rajapaksa vowed to call a snap general election "at the earliest opportunity" as he appointed a 16-member interim Cabinet on Friday and allotted major portfolios of defence, finance and trade to his brothers while inducting two Tamils as a sign of reaching out to the minority community.
President Gotabaya Rajapaksa said he would "consult the people" as soon as possible under Sri Lanka's Constitution after appointing the interim Cabinet headed by his elder brother Mahinda Rajapaksa, a former president who will now serve as prime minister, defence and finance minister.
The President's eldest brother Chamal Rajapaksa, 77, will serve as trade and food security ministry.
"I will consult the people at the earliest opportunity I get under the Constitution," the president said after swearing-in the new Cabinet.
Sri Lanka's existing parliamentary term ends next August, and the Constitution allows the president to dissolve the legislature in March and go for an election.
"This is an interim government," said Gotabaya Rajapaksa, who took over as the country's President on Monday.
He said the ministers of state would be appointed next week.
Gotabaya Rajapaksa as the President cannot hold ministries although he is the head of the Cabinet.
The Tamil minority members came from the Tamil-dominated North and from the central tea plantations areas dominated by Tamils of Indian origin.
Dinesh Gunawardena, 70, a veteran Marxist politician, has been named as the Minister of Foreign Affairs.
It is the first time in Sri Lankan history that two siblings have held the two top political positions, although Mahinda Rajapaksa is only in charge of a caretaker government.
Mahinda Rajapaksa was appointed as the country's prime minister on Thursday after incumbent Ranil Wickremesinghe formally tendered his resignation to President Gotabaya Rajapaksa.
Gotabaya Rajapaksa will hope to ride a wave of popularity and secure a majority for his Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP) party in the 225-member Parliament during the poll. Currently the Rajapaksas and their allies have just 96 legislators, making it hard for them to pass any legislation.
Soon after he was sworn in as the president, Gotabaya Rajapaksa thanked the powerful Buddhist clergy for backing his presidential bid and vowed to protect all communities, while giving foremost priority to Buddhism. He also thanked the Sinhala-majority people for electing him.
"I knew I would win the presidency with support coming only from the Sinhala majority. I told the minorities to join me. I did not receive their support. But I will make sure that I will be president for everyone," he said.
Muslims make up nearly 10 per cent of Sri Lanka's over 21 million people, who are predominantly Sinhalese Buddhists. About 12 per cent of the population are Hindus, mostly from the ethnic Tamil minority. Some seven per cent of the population are Christians.
There are already concerns in the country that Gotabaya Rajapaksa's remarks may have led to apprehensions among the minority communities, who are already worried about the possibility of the return of an iron-fist rule under the Rajapaksa-duo's regime.
The two brothers, Mahinda and Gotabaya Rajapaksas, led a decisive campaign that helped end the island nation's three decade long civil war against the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE).