Sri Lankan opposition meets to install new government amid turmoil

COLOMBO, Sri Lanka –

Sri Lanka’s opposition political parties met on Sunday to agree on a new government a day after the country’s president and prime minister offered their resignations in the most dramatic day of months of political turmoil, with protesters storming houses. of both leaders and setting fire to one of the buildings furious by the economic crisis.

The protesters remained at President Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s house, his seaside office and the prime minister’s residence, saying they will stay until he officially steps down. Soldiers fanned out across the city and Defense Chief of Staff Shavendra Silva called for public support to maintain law and order.

Ranjith Madduma Bandara, a senior official with the main opposition United People’s Force party, said separate discussions have been held with other parties and lawmakers who have split from Rajapaksa’s ruling coalition and more meetings are planned. He did not say when a deal might be reached, although it was expected to be finalized on Sunday.

Another opposition lawmaker, MA Sumanthiran, has earlier said that all the opposition parties combined could easily muster the 113 members needed to show a majority in Parliament, at which point they will ask Rajapaksa to install the new government and then step down.

Rajapaksa appeared to have vacated his residence before it was raided, and government spokesman Mohan Samaranayake said he had no information on his movements. A statement from the president’s office on Sunday said Rajapaksa ordered officials to begin immediate distribution of a shipment of cooking gas, suggesting he was still at work.

Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe said he will step down once a new government is in place, and hours later the speaker of parliament said Rajapaksa would step down on Wednesday. Pressure on both had increased as the economic crisis triggered severe shortages of essential items, leaving people scrambling for food, fuel and other necessities.

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

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

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

Analysts say it is doubtful a new leader can do more than Wickremesinghe. His government’s efforts have shown promise, with much-needed fertilizer distributed to farmers for next season’s crop and a first shipment of cooking gas orders arriving in the country on Sunday.

“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 on a common program for economic recovery.

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

An all-party government is unlikely to agree to IMF-backed economic reforms without some parties losing political support.

Wickremesinghe said on Saturday that it was wrong 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 various issues 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 gathered at the fortified Rajapaksa residence. Crowds of people splashed in the garden pool, lay on beds and used their cell phone 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 leave.

While both Wickremesinghe and Abeywardena, the speaker of parliament, said in their speeches that they had spoken to the president, they said nothing about his whereabouts.

Protesters later broke into the prime minister’s private residence and set it on fire, Wickremesinghe’s office said. It was not clear if he was there when the raid occurred.

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said Washington was following developments in Sri Lanka and urged Parliament to work quickly to implement solutions and address public discontent.

Speaking at a news conference in Bangkok, Blinken said the United States condemns the attacks on peaceful protesters and calls for a full investigation into any violence related to the protests.

Sri Lanka relies on help from India and other nations as leaders try to negotiate a bailout with the IMF. Wickremesinghe recently said negotiations with the IMF were complex because Sri Lanka was now a bankrupt state.

Sri Lanka announced in April that it was suspending payments on foreign loans due to a shortage of foreign exchange. Its total external debt amounts to 51,000 million dollars, of which it must pay 28,000 million dollars 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 protesters accuse it of mismanagement and corruption. The president’s older brother resigned as prime minister in May after violent protests prompted him to seek safety at a naval base. He later moved to a house in Colombo.

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