Sri Lankan lawmakers choose new president but no deal with Prime Minister

Colombo, Sri Lanka — Sri Lankan lawmakers have agreed to elect a new president next week but struggled on Tuesday to decide on a new government to lift the bankrupt country out of economic and political collapse treat.

Severely short of food, fuel and medicine, protesters on Saturday stormed the home of President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, his seaside office and the prime minister’s official residence in the most dramatic day. of the three-month crisis.

Both officials agreed to make concessions demanding their resignation: Rajapaksa promised to step down on Wednesday, while Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe said he would leave when a new government arrives. As anger grew, especially towards Rajapaksa and his influential family, immigration officials said one of the president’s brothers tried to leave the country on Monday night. Local media said he was unable to.

Promises of resignation have brought no end to the crisis – and protesters have vowed to occupy official buildings until their top leaders are gone. For days, people have flocked to the presidential palace almost as a tourist attraction – swimming in the pool, admiring the paintings and lounging on beds piled up with pillows. At one point, they even burned down the prime minister’s private house.

While lawmakers agreed late Monday to elect a new president from their ranks on July 20, they have yet to decide who will take over as prime minister and fill the Cabinet.

The new president will serve the remainder of Rajapaksa’s term, which ends in 2024 – and potentially appoint a new prime minister, who will then have to be approved by Parliament.

Between the date Rajapaksa is scheduled to step down on Wednesday and the vote, the head will be president – a deal that is sure to anger protesters even more, who want Wickremesinghe to go immediately. .

Corruption and mismanagement have left the island nation steeped in debt and unable to pay for imports of essential goods, leaving the country’s 22 million people desperate. Sri Lankans are skipping meals and queuing for hours trying to buy scarce fuel – a harsh reality in a country with a rapidly growing economy and a growing and comfortable middle class. , until the latest crisis deepens.

The political deadlock is continuing to fuel the economic crisis since the absence of an alternative unity government has threatened to delay a hopeful bailout from the International Monetary Fund. The government must submit its debt sustainability plan to the IMF by August before a deal is reached.

Meanwhile, it is relying on aid from neighboring India and from China.

Asked if China was in talks with Sri Lanka over possible loans, a Chinese Foreign Ministry official did not say whether such discussions were taking place.

“China will continue to support because of our ability to enable Sri Lanka’s social development and economic recovery,” said spokesman Wang Wenbin. “As for the Chinese debt, we assist the relevant financial institutions to find an appropriate solution through consultation with Sri Lanka.”

On Tuesday, Sri Lanka’s religious leaders urged protesters to leave the government buildings they were occupying if Rajapaksa stepped down as promised on Wednesday. Protesters have vowed to wait until both Rajapaksa and Wickremesinghe are out of office.

“It is clear that there is consensus throughout the country that the government leadership should change,” said Jehan Perera, executive director of Sri Lanka’s National Peace Council, a think tank.

However, as the political limbo dragged on, concerns grew that the leaders would not deliver on their promises to step down.

“What people are saying is that if the government doesn’t go, there will be another show of strength by the people and this time may not be so peaceful,” he said.

Months of protests have destroyed the political dynasty of Rajapaksa, which has ruled Sri Lanka for most of the past two decades.

Protesters accuse the president and his relatives of siphoning money from the government coffers for years and that Rajapaksa’s government has accelerated the country’s demise by mismanaging the economy. . The family has denied the corruption allegations, but Rajakpaksa admits some of his policies contributed to the crisis.

The president has neither been seen nor heard from since Saturday, although his office has issued statements indicating he is continuing to carry out his duties.

There is speculation that he may have tried to flee Sri Lanka – apparently his brother tried. S. Kanugala, of the Sri Lankan Immigration and Immigration Officers Association, said the name of former Finance Minister Basil Rajapaksa had been found on the list of departures from Colombo airport on Monday.

Fearing for their safety if they let him go, officers left their posts, according to Kanugala, who said he had no idea what happened to his brother. But local media reported he was prevented from leaving.


Associated Press Business writer Joe McDonald contributed to this report from Beijing.

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