Sri Lankan president resigns, parliament speaker says, amid storm of protests
© Reuters. Police use tear gas and water cannons to disperse protesters near the presidential palace during a demonstration demanding the resignation of President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, amid the country’s economic crisis, in Colombo, Sri Lanka , July 8, 2022. REUTERS / Dinuka
By Uditha Jayasinghe
COLOMBO (Reuters) – Sri Lanka’s President Gotabaya Rajapaksa plans to step down, the country’s parliament speaker said on Saturday, bowing to intense pressure after a day of violent protests in which protesters broke into the official presidential residence and set fire to the prime minister’s house in Colombo.
This announcement, following a dramatic escalation for months of mostly peaceful anti-government protests over the severe economic crisis on the Indian Ocean island of 22 million people, has triggered a flurry of Celebration fireworks in the city.
There were no immediate words from the president himself.
Speaker Mahinda Yapa Abeywardena said in a video statement that Rajapaksa had informed him that he would be stepping down next Wednesday.
Abeywardena said: “The decision to step down on July 13 was taken to ensure a peaceful handover of power. “Therefore, I ask the public to respect the law and maintain the peace,” he said.
Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe also said he was ready to step down to make room for an all-party government, his office said in a statement on Saturday night.
It remains unclear whether this will quell public anger.
Details of how the transfer of power will take place are also unknown, although the speaker had previously drawn up suggestions from Saturday’s meeting of political parties, including nationalization. Assembly chooses a powerful president within a week.
OFFICIAL RESIDENCE OVERRUN
Throughout the day, soldiers and police failed to contain the crowds of protesters calling for Rajapaksa’s resignation and blaming him for the country’s worst economic crisis in seven decades.
A witness said police opened fire from the air but were unable to stop the crowd that surrounded the presidential residence.
Neither Rajapaksa nor Wickremesinghe were in their residences when the buildings were attacked.
Inside the president’s whitewashed colonial-era residence, a Facebook (NASDAQ:) live stream showed hundreds of protesters, some wearing national flags, packed into rooms and hallways.
The video shows some of them splashing in the pool, while others sit on four-poster beds and sofas. Some people can see an empty drawer in the photos that have gone viral on social media.
Rajapaksa left Friday as a safety precaution ahead of the rally expected for the weekend, two defense ministry sources said. Reuters could not immediately confirm his whereabouts.
Late on Saturday, video on local news channels showed a large fire and smoke billowing from Wickremesinghe’s home in an affluent Colombo neighborhood. His office said protesters had started setting fires.
There were no immediate reports of injuries in the fire. Wickremesinghe has moved to a safe location, a government source told Reuters earlier in the day.
At least 39 people, including two policemen, were injured and hospitalized during the protest, hospital sources told Reuters.
The country is grappling with a severe foreign exchange shortage that has restricted imports of essential fuels, food and medicines, plunging the country into its worst economic crisis since its victory. was independent in 1948.
Soaring inflation, which hit a record 54.6% in June and is expected to hit 70% in the coming months, has caused a pile of hardships for people.
TALKING OF THE FEMALE PARTY
The decision by the president and prime minister to step aside came after Wickremesinghe held talks with several political party leaders to decide what steps to take in the wake of the unrest.
“Wickremesinghe has told party leaders that he is ready to step down as Prime Minister and make way for a full-party government to take over,” his office said in a statement.
The speaker of parliament, Abeywardena, said in a letter to Rajapaksa that several decisions had been made at the meeting of party leaders – including the president and prime minister to resign as soon as possible and Congress will be convened within seven days to choose a powerful president.
“Under the presidency, the current parliament can appoint a new prime minister and an interim government,” the letter released by the Spokesman’s office said.
“Then for a certain period of time an election can be held for the people to elect a new parliament,” it added.
Political analyst Kusal Perera called the situation “outrageous”.
“If a clear transition is not made then the resignation of the president and prime minister will create a power vacuum that can be dangerous,” Perera said. “The spokesman could appoint a new all-party government but whether they will be accepted by the protesters remains to be seen.”
Political turmoil could undermine Sri Lanka’s negotiations with the International Monetary Fund as the country seeks a $3 billion bailout, restructuring some of its external debt and raising capital from sources. multilaterally and bilaterally to alleviate the dollar drought.
The economic crisis developed after the COVID-19 pandemic hit a tourism-dependent economy and cut remittances from overseas workers.
It was compounded by mounting government debt, rising oil prices and last year’s ban on chemical fertilizer imports that devastated agriculture. The fertilizer ban was reversed in November.
However, many blame the country’s decline on Rajapaksa’s economic mismanagement.
Discontent has grown in recent weeks as the cash-strapped nation stopped taking fuel shipments, forced school closures and split gasoline and diesel stocks among essential services.