Protests force Sri Lanka’s president and prime minister to resign
Sri Lanka’s ongoing political and economic crises came to a head again as thousands of protesters gathered on Saturday and some stormed the president’s home and offices.
Sri Lankan President Gotabaya Rajapaksa reportedly agreed to step down on July 13, although he has yet to personally confirm the speaker’s announcement because he would be in hiding. Following the president’s announcement, protesters also burned down the residence of Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe, who also said he was stepping down after just a few months on the job. Neither he nor Rajapaksa were present when the residences were breached, according to the BBC, and photos show several protesters floating in the president’s outdoor pool.
Rajapaksa, the scion of a Sri Lankan political family, was elected in 2019, and while he didn’t exactly cause the country’s economic problems, conditions deteriorated significantly under his leadership; critical shortages of basic necessities like fuel, medicine and food sparked the protests that apparently toppled his administration and, for now, the Rajapaksa dynasty.
Wickremesinghe, who joined Rajapaksa’s administration in May after former prime minister Mahinda Rajapaksa – a brother of the current president – resigned following violent protests over Sri Lanka’s dire economic situation . Sri Lanka has defaulted on its foreign loans – which currently total around $51 billion – for the first time in its history. This exacerbates the turmoil that successive crises have wreaked on the country’s tourism industry in recent years, including a series of attacks on churches in 2019, as well as the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic and Russia’s war in Ukraine.
Although Speaker of Parliament Mahinda Abeywardena announced on Saturday that the President would step down “to ensure a peaceful transition”, this will not come into effect immediately, and more chaos and violence could occur before the transition date from July 13 – not to mention the risk that the president and prime minister might find a way to cling to power around this time.
“So the president has made it known through the president that he will abide by everything that was agreed upon at the party leaders’ meeting that took place today,” said Nishan de Mel, executive director of Verité Research, a Colombo-based think tank. told Al Jazeera English on Saturday. “And at the party leaders’ meeting, everyone except the prime minister, of course, said the president and the prime minister must step down with immediate effect.” However, the prime minister has yet to set a date for his departure, and the president’s is still a few days away.
“Still a long way to go. 4 days is a lot of time in #SriLanka politics,” Alan Keenan, a Sri Lankan politics researcher at the International Crisis Group, tweeted on Saturday.
The current crisis in Sri Lanka has been going on for years
The current Rajapaksa administration has failed to contain the fallout from recent crises and other long-standing economic problems, which have hampered the government’s ability to supplement its already dwindling foreign currency reserves. Then, last year, the government banned the import of chemical fertilizers, ostensibly to protect the foreign currency at its disposal; instead, the ban devastated the domestic rice and tea industries, forcing the government to spend more on importing food than it had saved from the fertilizer ban, Keenan told the Sydney Morning Herald in June. And without the foreign currency that the now struggling tourism industry provided, the government would no longer be able to import the basic goods people need to survive.
These struggles – the attacks on the church, Covid-19, the gutted tourism industry, low taxes, the ban on fertilizers and, of course, the Russian invasion of Ukraine and the resulting fuel crisis. ensues – would be more than enough on their own. But the Rajapaksa family’s propensity for political failures, corruption and overambitious infrastructure projects is nothing new and sparked the circumstances that brought Sri Lanka’s economy to its knees.
Before there was President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, there was President Mahinda Rajapaksa – the same brother who until May 9 served as Prime Minister of Sri Lanka before protesters forced him out of his job and office. estate, Temple Trees. Under Mahinda, Sri Lanka undertook several costly infrastructure projects, including a cricket stadium and the international port of Hambantota. China loaned billions to Sri Lanka under Mahinda to fund projects including the port; however, the Sri Lankan government agreed to allow a Chinese creditor to control a majority stake in the port as part of its debt repayment in 2017.
Now, Gotabaya said in a June interview, China is showing less willingness to lend to Sri Lanka so the government can import commodities. “My analysis is that China has shifted its strategic focus to Southeast Asia,” he said at the time. “They see a more strategic interest in the Philippines, Vietnam and Cambodia, this region and Africa.” This sentiment of course negates his own government’s role in China’s waning interest in helping Sri Lanka, making this reluctance to shift priorities rather than Gotabaya and his administration failing to meet the demands of financial solvency and stability. economics of its creditors.
The president’s refusal to take responsibility for the economic crisis has also meant he has delayed seeking aid from the International Monetary Fund and others to help restructure Sri Lanka’s debts and bail out the country, extending the economic crisis – which has now become a political crisis.
Entrenched corruption sparks calls for ‘system change’
Now, with the potential end of the current Rajapaksa administration, it is unclear how Sri Lanka will emerge from the unprecedented economic crisis it is currently facing. Talks with the IMF last month, while apparently successful, failed to produce a plan to turn the economy around and put it on a stable path; political instability could potentially thwart further discussions.
While the two Rajapaksa and Wickremesinghe agreed to leave following a decision in parliament urging them both to step down from office with immediate effect they could delay in a bid to cling on to power. Rajapaksa reportedly agreed to leave before July 13 and Wickremesinghe has not set a date and there is not actually a guarantee that they will, according to Keenan. “Everyone in power and close to him in #SriLanka, with few exceptions, only cares about playing angles, saving time, hardly ever public interest,” he tweeted on Saturday. . “That’s why so many people are asking for ‘system change’.”
.@NCdeMel on Ranil “to save time”: promising, like Gotabaya, to resign soon.
All those in power and close to him in #Sri Lanka, with a few exceptions, care only about playing angles, saving time, almost never about the public interest. This is why so many people are calling for a “system change”. https://t.co/MzzRrWbbTQ
—Alan Keenan (@akeenan23) July 9, 2022
De Mel told Al Jazeera English that “If you look at the history of the prime minister leading his own party, over the last 20 years, every time they’ve lost an election – and they’ve lost a lot – the Prime Minister, within his party, has promised to step down, provided there is a consensus in the rest of the party ranks on another leader. Now, said de Mel, Wickremesinghe may be trying to at least “buy time and not defer to the huge call from society and people to quit. So I think it’s very clear that this is a tried-and-true cynical tactic being presented as an excuse to stay.
Additionally, The New York Times reported incidents of state violence against protesters, with 42 people injured after clashes with state security forces, and four journalists from a Sri Lankan TV station. attacked in front of the Prime Minister’s residence by the security forces. Saturday. police had used water cannons and tear gas against protesters and reportedly fired shots into the air in an attempt to disperse the crowd.
If Rajapaksa and Wickremesinghe end up leaving office, it is not clear that the Rajapaksa political dynasty will end with Gotabaya. Mahinda’s son, Namal, served in his uncle’s cabinet until this year and still sits in parliament; Basil Rajapaksa, a brother of the president, served as finance minister in his brother’s administration and, according to some insiders, effectively led the country during its economic spiral. He resigned from his post on June 9, but even then, he told reporters, “I can’t and don’t want to walk away from politics.”