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Sri Lanka: With brother Mahinda’s resignation, road only gets tougher for Gotabaya

Mahinda Rajapaksa's decision to quit in the wake of the shocking violence unleashed by his supporters on peaceful protestors in Colombo and its outskirts, has not yet resolved the political impasse.

Written by Nirupama Subramanian | Chennai |
Updated: May 31, 2022 3:05:07 pm
Sri Lankan PM Mahinda Rajapaksa, center, with his younger brother, President Gotabaya Rajapaksa. (AP/File)

The reluctant resignation of Mahinda Rajapakse as Prime Minister of Sri Lanka on Monday came three days after his brother president Gotabaya Rajapaksa reportedly asked him at a cabinet meeting to step down and pave the way for an interim government with the participation of opposition parties.

His decision to send in his resignation to the President – it is unclear if it has been accepted – in the wake of the shocking violence unleashed by his supporters on peaceful protestors at Colombo and its outskirts, has not yet resolved the political impasse. And it has hardly appeased the people who have been protesting against President Rajapaksa and demanding that he resign.

If anything, the violence, in which a member of parliament belonging to the ruling Sri Lanka Podujana Party (SLPP) and one other person with him died, and over a hundred anti-Rajapaksa protestors were injured, is likely to keep the country on the boil and intensify calls for the President to step down.

Colombo has been a witness to terrorist bombings and assassinations, but not to the scenes of violence that unfolded on Monday.

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It was exactly a month ago that the protests began at Galle Face Green, Colombo’s scenic sea front promenade. The mainly young protestors, comprising students, professionals and others, were protesting the mishandling of the economy by the Rajapaksa government that has left Sri Lanka without enough dollars to import essential commodities, including essential foods, medicines and fuel.

Despite the daily gathering of thousands, with many camping at the site, the protests were peaceful, and their slogan Go Gota Go, captured the national anger at their government run by a close cabal of Rajapaksa family members and their friends. Last Friday, the protests got the backing of 1000 trade unions, who joined the protests with a general strike, threatening to launch an indefinite strike from this week.

Though President Rajapaksa reimposed an emergency on Friday (he declared an emergency the first time at the beginning of April but lifted it after it became unclear if the government had enough numbers in parliament to ratify it, as is mandatory), he has been trying to find a way out of the political impasse that would not require him to step down. But his efforts to form an interim government with the participation of all political parties under his presidency, have proved futile.

The main opposition party, Samagi Jana Balawegaya, has submitted two no-confidence motions against the government. The President is directly elected, and a parliamentary ouster of the government would not strictly affect his position, but would certainly undermine his authority. Last week, the Sri Lankan media reported that Gotabaya had asked Mahinda to resign so that an interim government could be formed.

Amid rumours that Mahinda would step down on Monday, a pro-Mahinda group of SLPP workers first gathered this morning at the Prime Minister’s official residence some 3 kms from the protest site, pleading with him not to resign. They then marched to Galle Face Green where a posse of policemen and other security forces did not prevent them as they started burning down the camp site and assaulting the protestors.

The parliamentarian, Amarakeerthi Athukorale of Polonnnaruwa, is alleged to have opened fire on protestors on a highway to Kandy, grievously injuring two people. He fled to take shelter in a nearby building where he was later found dead of a bullet wound.

With today’s events likely to increase the demand that Gotabya Rajapaksa resign, it may also further harden the decision of the SJB not to become part of an interim government that has a Rajapaksa heading it (Sri Lanka has an executive presidency), and in which the ruling SLPP, and its former partner in the ruling coalition, the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (which claims it has left the coalition) will also play a part.

The SJB is the single largest opposition party in parliament but does not have enough numbers on its own to form the government. Its leader Sajith Premadasa has been clear he does not want to form a government in association with the ruling SLPP, and nor does he want to be answerable to an executive President.

SJB has demanded that all parties that stand opposed to the SLPP must come together to pass the no-confidence motion against the government, and start a process for abolishing the executive presidency, and as well impeach the incumbent.

But opposition unity is a question mark, as was painfully evident in the election of a deputy speaker last week. The SLFP candidate for the post was not supported by the SJB, which put up its own candidate. But he was elected with votes from the SLPP.

With confusion prevailing on the way forward, and the President himself clearly unwilling to step down, no one is ruling out that Mahinda might be allowed to take back his resignation and reutrn as Prime Minister.

Meanwhile, Sri Lanka’s economic condition has not improved. The shortages continue. The country’s negotiations with the IMF are ongoing. India has added another $200 billion dollars to the $2.4 bn it had already given to Colombo. The Sri Lankan government is also seeking additional finances from China, though there is no word on whether Beijing will provide this assistance.

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