October 4, 2022

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Sri Lanka’s opposition political parties will meet Sunday to agree on a new government a day after the country’s president and prime minister offered to resign in the country’s most chaotic day in months of political turmoil, with protesters storming both officials’ homes and setting fire to one of the buildings in a rage over the nation’s economic crisis.

It was not clear if President Gotabaya Rajapaksa was there at the time, and government spokesperson Mohan Samaranayake said he had no information about the president’s movements.

Protesters remain in the compound where they stormed the president’s official residence, his office and the prime minister’s official residence, saying they will stay until the leaders officially resign. Soldiers were deployed around the city with Chief of Defence Staff Shavendra Silva calling for public support to maintain law and order.

Opposition lawmaker M. A. Sumanthiran said all opposition parties combined could easily muster the 113 members needed to show a majority in parliament, at which point they will request Rajapaksa to install the new government and then resign.

PM to step down Wednesday, speaker says

He said the parties hoped to reach consensus Sunday.

Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe said he will leave office once a new government is in place, and hours later the speaker of parliament said Rajapaksa would step down Wednesday. Pressure on both men had grown as the economic meltdown set off acute shortages of essential items, leaving people struggling to obtain food, fuel and other necessities.

If both president and prime minister resign, Speaker Mahinda Yapa Abeywardena will take over as temporary president, according to the constitution.

Protesters react after police fired tear gas to disperse them in Colombo on Saturday. (Amitha Thennakoon/The Associated Press)

Rajapaksa appointed Wickremesinghe as prime minister in May in an effort to solve the shortages and start economic recovery.

Wickremesinghe had been part of crucial talks with the International Monetary Fund for a bailout program and with the World Food Program to face a predicted food crisis. The government must submit a plan on debt sustainability to the IMF in August before reaching an agreement.

Analysts say it is doubtful any new leader could do more than what Wickremesinghe had been doing. His government’s efforts showed promise, with much-needed fertilizer for next season’s cultivation and a first consignment of cooking gas orders arriving in the country Sunday.

‘Unrest could cause confusion’

“This kind of unrest could create confusion among international organizations like the IMF and the World Bank,” political analyst Ranga Kalansooriya said, adding that a new administration should agree to a common program for economic recovery.

He said while Wickremesinghe was working in the right direction, his administration’s weakness was not implementing a long-term plan to go with its focus on solving day-to-day problems.

It is unlikely that an all-party government will agree on IMF-backed economic reforms without some member parties losing their political and ideological identities.

Wickremesinghe said Saturday that it was not proper for him to leave without a government in place.

“Today in this country we have a fuel crisis, a food shortage, we have the head of the World Food Program coming here and we have several matters to discuss with the IMF,” Wickremesinghe said. “Therefore, if this government leaves there should be another government.”

Thousands of protesters entered the capital Colombo on Saturday and swarmed into Rajapaksa’s fortified residence. Crowds of people splashed in the garden pool, lounged on beds and used their cellphone cameras to capture the moment. Some made tea or used the gym while others issued statements from a conference room demanding that the president and prime minister go.

Relying on aid from India

Even though both Wickremesinghe and Abeywardena said in their speeches that they had spoken with the president, they did not say anything about his whereabouts.

Protesters later broke into the prime minister’s private residence and set it on fire, Wickremesinghe’s office said. It wasn’t clear if he was there when the incursion happened and the prime minister’s spokesperson could not be reached for comment.

The country is relying on aid from India and other nations as leaders try to negotiate a bailout with the IMF. Wickremesinghe said recently that negotiations with the IMF were complex because Sri Lanka was now a bankrupt state.

Protesters react as a tear gas shell fired by police lands next to them in Colombo on Saturday. (Amitha Thennakoon/The Associated Press)

Sri Lanka announced in April that it was suspending repayment of foreign loans due to a foreign currency shortage. Its total foreign debt amounts to $66 billion Cdn, of which it must repay $36 billion by the end of 2027.

Months of demonstrations have all but dismantled the Rajapaksa political dynasty, which has ruled Sri Lanka for most of the past two decades but is accused by protesters of mismanagement and corruption. The president’s older brother resigned as prime minister in May after violent protests saw him seek safety at a naval base.

He later moved into a house in Colombo, but the president’s whereabouts remain unknown.

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