Political parties in Sri Lanka are scrambling to form an all-party government, a day after President Gotabaya Rajapaksa and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe pledged to resign in the wake of historic citizens’ protest.
Sri Lankans are living through a harrowing economic collapse, with accessing essentials such as fuel, food, and medicines becoming an everyday battle.
In a culmination of people’s agitations spanning months, massive crowds on Saturday thronged Colombo’s seafront, where anti-government protests persisted for three months over the government’s failure to arrest or address the long-simmering crisis.
Demonstrators stormed the Presidential palace, the Secretariat, and the official residence of the Prime Minister, and occupied the country’s seats of power, in a rare display of public fury. Arsonists torched Mr. Wickremesinghe’s private residence.
The escalation of citizens’ anger pushed the top two leaders to agree to step down, though neither has formally handed in his resignation. Mr. Gotabaya has informed the Speaker that he will step down on July 13. Five Cabinet Ministers have announced their resignation since.
Party leaders met on Saturday in a discussion convened by the Speaker. They sought the immediate resignation of the President and the Prime Minister, agreed that Speaker Mahinda Yapa Abeywardena be made Acting President as per the Constitution, after which Parliament be convened to elect a President from among its members, to pave way for an interim, all-party government. A flurry of political meetings followed on Sunday.
With the Rajapaksas still holding a parliamentary majority, it is not a straightforward choice for the main Opposition party Samagi Jana Balawegaya (SJB or United People’s Power), which has nearly 50 seats in the 225-member House.
While the party may feel pressured to help restore stability on the island, the road ahead for a new, caretaker government is bound to be rocky and rife with risk amid a worsening economic crisis.
“We are speaking to various parties and independent groups in Parliament. We are looking at how the two top positions of President and Prime Minister could be shared among us,” SJB legislator Harsha de Silva told The Hindu. Two names that have come up in this connection are long-time Rajapaksa loyalist Dullas Alahapperuma, an MP from Matara district, and Opposition Leader Sajith Premadasa
The numbers in the House are still stacked in favour of the ruling Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP, or People’s Front), making Opposition actors ambivalent about an “all-party” arrangement.
Almost all Opposition parties are apprehensive, knowing that a possible stint in the next government may impact their chances of winning back the trust of angry, disenchanted voters in the next elections that most of them want to be held in about six months.
The leftist Janata Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP), is yet to agree to be part of such an interim, all-party government. The SJB has reached out to Sri Lanka’s main Tamil party, the Tamil National Alliance (TNA). “We have been consulted and the SJB has invited us. We have asked them to go ahead with a new government if they have the numbers. However, if they need our support, we said will then talk about the conditions on which we might be able to support them,” TNA spokesman and Jaffna legislator M.A. Sumanthiran told The Hindu. The Speaker is scheduled to convene another party leaders’ meeting on Monday, political sources said.
Meanwhile, protesting groups are concerned that the leaders’ promise to resign may not be kept, amid “political games”. Peter D’Almeida, from the Artists of the People’s Movement, an informal group which has been part of the anti-government agitations, termed ongoing efforts to form an all-party government “a joke”.
“The Speaker represents a failed institution, the Parliament, which has failed the people of this country,” he told the media. Accusing party leaders of hijacking the people’s uprising, he said protesters while asking “Gota to go home”, also ask for the Executive Presidency system to be abolished. “Whoever comes as the [new] President will still have dictatorial powers,” he contended.