COLOMBO (AFP) – New Sri Lankan President Maithripala Sirisena began assembling a cabinet Saturday on his first day in office as he looks to deliver on pledges to repair the war-torn nation’s diplomatic standing and implement democratic reforms.
Sirisena, who was sworn in Friday evening after a shock election victory over veteran strongman Mahinda Rajapakse, was trying to form a "national unity" cabinet that would include members from a cross section of political parties in parliament, an aide said.
"The main task is to choose a cabinet and the work is already underway," Nishantha Warnasinghe told AFP.
Sirisena had offered a 100-day programme to carry out urgent political and economic reforms, including moves to cut back on the powers of the president that Rajapakse gave himself during a decade in office.
Shortly after being sworn in, Sirisena appointed as new prime minister the parliamentary opposition leader Ranil Wickremesinghe, who is expected to wield considerable power.
Sirisena is expected to make another address to the nation from the historic hill resort of Kandy on Sunday, officials said.
Prime Minister Wickremesinghe, meanwhile, was travelling to the southern region of Ratnapura Saturday to attend the funeral of a supporter who was shot on the final day of campaigning and succumbed to his injuries on the eve of Thursday’s vote, his office said.
Wickremesinghe is seen as having significantly better relations with the West than Rajapakse and regional powerhouse India is expected to play a key role in choosing the new cabinet.
In a previous stint as prime minister between 2002 and 2004, he managed to secure international support for a peace process designed to end the island’s long-running Tamil separatist conflict.
The efforts ultimately failed as Norwegian-brokered negotiations fell apart when Tamil Tiger rebels broke off talks and returned to fighting in 2006, soon after the hardline nationalist Rajapakse came to power.
Rajapakse came to be shunned by many Western nations, who accused him of turning a blind eye to large-scale human rights abuses.
Several leaders, including the Indian and Canadian prime ministers, boycotted a Commonwealth summit hosted by the strongman leader in November 2013 over his refusal to allow an international investigation into claims of massacres at the end of the 37-year war in May 2009.
India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi and British leader David Cameron were among the first to congratulate Sirisena.
– Mending foreign relations –
In a speech soon after being sworn in, Sirisena promised to mend Sri Lanka’s ties with the international community.
"We will have a foreign policy that will mend our ties with the international community and all international organisations in order that we derive maximum benefit for our people," he said.
"We will work with friendship and brotherhood and cooperation with all states."
Rajapakse fell out with the West over allegations his troops killed 40,000 Tamil civilians at the end of the civil war. He refused to cooperate with a UN-mandated investigation.
While in power he cultivated close links with China, which has invested heavily in Sri Lanka, seeking to counter rival India’s influence.
Beijing has downplayed suggestions the change in leadership could impact its projects in Sri Lanka.
US President Barack Obama called for closer ties with Sri Lanka under Sirisena.
"At this moment of hope, the United States looks forward to deepening its partnership with the people and government of Sri Lanka and to working with President Sirisena to advance peace, democracy, and prosperity for all Sri Lankans," Obama said in a statement.
There were similar statements from the European Union and Australia, which said it looked forward to seeing Sirisena implement his mandate for "democratic reform, good governance and anti-corruption".
Sirisena, a former health minister who united a fractured opposition to pull off an unlikely victory, has thanked his predecessor for a "fair election that allowed me to be the president".
He was elected with 51.28 percent of the votes, to the former leader’s 47.58 percent.
It was a remarkable reverse for a leader who had appeared certain of victory when he called snap polls in November.
Sri Lanka’s press showed rare unity Saturday in giving the thumbs up to Sirisena.