COLOMBO, Sri Lanka –
Sri Lanka’s interim president declared a state of emergency on Monday giving him sweeping authority amid growing protests demanding his resignation two days before the country’s lawmakers elect a new president.
Ranil Wickremesing became interim president on Friday after his predecessor, Gotabaya Rajapaksa, fled abroad and resigned after months of mass protests over the country’s economic collapse.
Wickremesinghe’s move to impose a state of emergency comes as protests demanding his resignation continued across most of the country, with some burning his effigy.
Wickremesinghe said in a statement that negotiations for a rescue package with the International Monetary Fund were drawing to a close, while aid discussions with foreign countries were also moving forward. There has been no IMF comment on Wickremesinghe’s assessment of the bailout talks.
He said help was being provided to people and steps were being taken to resolve shortages of fuel and cooking gas.
However, he said “elements within society” were trying to disturb the peace. He did not specify, but said the disruptions will not be allowed to hamper the country’s progress.
Wickremesinghe said the government would engage with peaceful protesters who had legitimate concerns and find solutions for them. He also urged political parties to put aside their differences and form “an all-party government that will allow the country to recover from the economic crisis.”
There was no immediate response from the political parties to his latest comments, but they have been working on a unity government.
Lawmakers meeting on Saturday began the process of electing a new leader to serve out the remainder of Rajapaksa’s vacated term. The nominations for the election of the new president will be known on Tuesday, and if there is more than one candidate, the legislators will vote on Wednesday.
The emergency decree issued by Wickremesinghe invokes sections of the Public Safety Ordinance that allow him to make regulations in the interest of public safety and order. You can authorize arrests, take possession of any property and search any premises. You can also change or suspend any law.
Sri Lanka has run out of money to pay for imports of basic necessities such as food, fertilizer, medicine and fuel for its 22 million people. Its rapid economic decline has been all the more shocking because before the crisis, the economy had been expanding with a comfortable and growing middle class.
Sri Lanka is seeking help from the IMF and other creditors, but senior officials say its finances are so bad that even getting a bailout has proven difficult.
Economic difficulties led to political unrest and widespread protests demanding the resignation of the Rajapaksa-led government. Although many ministers resigned in April, Rajapaksa remained in power until last week, when he flew first to the Maldives and then to Singapore.
The main protests have been in the capital Colombo, where large crowds have occupied the front of the president’s office for more than 100 days.
Protesters accuse Rajapaksa and his powerful in-laws of siphoning money from government coffers and accelerating the country’s collapse by mismanaging the economy. The family has denied allegations of corruption, but Rajapaksa acknowledged that some of his policies contributed to the collapse.