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Sri Lankan crisis worsens as new finance minister quits, dissidents may walk out

Source: PTI
Last updated on: April 05, 2022 15:20 IST
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Sri Lanka's ruling coalition headed by President Gotabaya Rajapaksa on Tuesday faced more trouble after the newly-appointed Finance Minister Ali Sabry resigned even as dissident lawmakers, led by former president Maithripala Sirisena, were planning to quit the government against the backdrop of nationwide protests over the country's worst economic crisis.

IMAGE: People shout slogans against Sri Lanka's President Gotabaya Rajapaksa and demand that Rajapaksa family politicians step down, during a protest amid the country's economic crisis, on a main road in Colombo, Sri Lanka, April 4, 2022. Photograph: Dinuka Liyanawatte/Reuters.

President Rajapaksa had appointed Sabry after sacking his brother Basil Rajapaksa, who was at the centre of anger within the ruling Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP) coalition.

 

In a letter to the president, Sabri said that he took up the job as part of a temporary measure.

”However, after much reflection and deliberation and taking into consideration the current situation, I am now of the view for Your Excellency to make suitable interim arrangement to navigate the unprecedented crisis fresh and proactive, and unconventional steps needs to be taken including the appointment of a new finance minister,” Sabry said in the letter.

He was among the four new ministers appointed by the president on Monday after the resignation of all cabinet ministers a day earlier.

When the parliament convened on Tuesday, several government allies expressed their decision to stay neutral. It was the first session since a state of emergency was declared by President Rajapaksa last week.

The ruling coalition, which had won 150 seats in the 2020 general elections and went on to increase its numbers through defections from the Opposition, appeared to lose the support of at least 41 MPs.

It now appears to have 109 seats, five less than the 113 seats required for simple majority in the 225-member Parliament.

The government, however, claimed that it commands the simple majority.

Sri Lanka is currently experiencing its worst economic crisis in history. With long lines for fuel, cooking gas, essentials in short supply and long hours of power cuts, the public has been suffering for months.

The dissidents, led by former president Sirisena's Sri Lanka Freedom Party, would leave the ruling SLPP coalition with its 14 members of parliament, party sources said after their meeting with the president on Monday.

The coalition, which commanded 157 votes out of 225 at the last vote held on the government budget, is bound to lose between 50-60 members, Udaya Gammanpila, a dissident lawmaker told reporters on Monday.

As a result, the government would not only be denied its two-thirds but even the simple majority of 113 members, he said.

However, Rohitha Abeygunawardena, an SLPP lawmaker, said that the government was rock solid with 138 members backing it.

The dissidents said that in addition to 14 members of Sirisena, 16 more from the other 11 members of the coalition would defect to be an independent group. They expect at least 20 from the SLPP to join their ranks.

On Monday, there were storming of houses of many government politicians, including Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa's country house deep southern province, by angry demonstrators.

Prasanna Ranatunga, who is a fierce Rajapaksa loyalist, said, ”President won't resign due to protests, but he is willing to hand over the government to anyone who could prove 113.”

The president had invited the Opposition parties to join a unity cabinet to tackle the raging public anger against the hardships caused by the economic crisis.

The Opposition parties have rejected the offer.

The president, who named just four members to his new cabinet, would be forced to appoint his own SLPP cabinet on Tuesday, analysts said.

Despite the declaration of the state of emergency and a weekend curfew, people joined the protests calling for the resignation of Rajapaksa.

It appeared that Rajapaksa's unity cabinet plea had no resonance with the public as they were out in larger numbers, calling for the resignation of the entire Rajapaksa family from politics.

Following the 2019 Sri Lankan elections, the Rajapaksa family has kept several portfolios in the current government under their control.

While President Rajapaksa holds the all-powerful executive presidency, his elder brother Mahinda, who is a former president, is the current prime minister.

Basil held the finance ministry portfolio until his sacking on Monday.

Mahinda's son Namal, the heir apparent, is the minister of youth and sports.

India recently announced to extend a USD 1 billion line of credit to Sri Lanka as part of its financial assistance to the country to deal with the economic crisis following a previous USD 500 billion line of credit in February to help it purchase petroleum products.

During his recently-concluded visit to Colombo, External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar had assured India's continued support in Sri Lanka's economic recovery process.

President Rajapaksa has defended his government's actions, saying the foreign exchange crisis was not his making and the economic downturn was largely pandemic driven with the island nation's tourism revenue and inward remittances waning.

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