Home Politics How Sri Lanka got into crisis and what happens next | Protests News

How Sri Lanka got into crisis and what happens next | Protests News

by YAR

Sri Lanka’s economic crisis has spiraled into deadly violence, killing eight people and injuring more than 200 so far.

The country’s powerful Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa has resigned and his younger brother, President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, is looking for a way out of the chaos.

Anti-government protesters, angered by blackouts, shortages of basic goods and rising prices, are demanding that the president also resign, but the retired military officer has invoked emergency powers in a bid to maintain control.

The violence and political chaos gripping the island nation of 22 million people comes 13 years after a brutal civil war ended in bloody denouement that killed tens of thousands of people.

Sri Lankan Army soldiers are seen in an armored vehicle in Colombo [Dinuka Liyanawatte/Reuters]

India, Sri Lanka’s neighbor to the north, has provided billions of dollars in loans to help the country pay for vital supplies.

China, which has recently invested heavily in infrastructure projects in Sri Lanka in what analysts say is an attempt to spread its influence in Asia, has intervened less publicly but said it supported the island nation’s efforts to restructure its debt. .

Sri Lanka’s vital negotiations with the International Monetary Fund (IMF) over a rescue plan, as well as plans to restructure its sovereign debt, could fall apart.

How did this come about?

Much of the public anger has been directed at the Rajapaksa brothers, whom protesters blame for leading the country into economic crisis.

Analysts say economic mismanagement by successive governments has weakened Sri Lanka’s public finances, leaving national spending outstripping income and output of tradable goods and services at inadequate levels.

The situation was exacerbated by deep tax cuts by the Rajapaksa government shortly after taking office in 2019.

Months later, the COVID-19 pandemic arrived, devastating much of Sri Lanka’s income base, especially from the lucrative tourism industry. Remittances from nationals working abroad fell during the same period and were further affected by an inflexible exchange rate.

Rating agencies, concerned about the government’s finances and its inability to service large foreign debt, downgraded Sri Lanka’s credit ratings from 2020, ultimately shutting the country out of international financial markets.

To keep the economy afloat, the government leaned heavily on its foreign exchange reserves, eroding them by more than 70 percent in two years.

“Government communication was very poor and people were not prepared for this dire situation we were in,” Ganeshan Wignaraja of the Overseas Development Institute told Al Jazeera.

Who are the Rajapaksa brothers?

Protests across the country are demanding the ouster of the Rajapaksa brothers, a dramatic reversal in fortunes for Sri Lanka’s most powerful political dynasty.

Mahinda and Gotabaya Rajapaksa were hailed as heroes in 2009 by the island’s Sinhalese-Buddhist majority for ending a 30-year civil war against ethnic Tamil rebels.

Despite accusations of war atrocities, they amassed wide popularity: Mahinda, who as president at the time oversaw the end of the war, and Gotabaya, a military strategist whose brutal campaign helped crush the rebels.

A powerful landowning family from a rural district in the south, the Rajapaksas dominated local elections for years before rising to national politics in 2005 when Mahinda was elected president. He remained in power until 2015, when he was defeated by the opposition led by a former collaborator.

After the 2019 Easter attacks, the family returned to power under Gotabaya, who ran for president in a nationalist campaign that won over voters disillusioned with the previous government over the attacks.

Critics have accused the Rajapaksas of relying heavily on the military to enforce policy, pass laws to weaken independent institutions, and maintain a near monopoly on decision-making. Three other Rajapaksa members were in the cabinet until early April, when the entire cabinet resigned over the protests.

Mahinda’s resignation on Monday is a partial victory for the protesters. With the protests continuing, especially outside the president’s office, there is renewed pressure on the president to resign as well.

What did the government do?

Despite the rapidly deteriorating economic environment, the Rajapaksa government initially called off talks with the IMF.

For months, opposition leaders and financial pundits urged the government to act, but it held firm, hoping tourism would rebound and remittances would rebound.

Eventually, aware of the scale of the looming crisis, the government sought help from countries like India and China, regional superpowers that have traditionally vied for influence over the strategically located island.

In total, New Delhi says it has provided more than $3.5 billion worth of support this year.

In early 2022, President Rajapaksa asked China to restructure payments on around $3.5 billion of debt to Beijing, which in late 2021 also provided Sri Lanka with a $1.5 billion yuan-denominated swap.

Sri Lanka finally opened talks with the IMF last month.

Despite external support, fuel shortages have led to long lines at gas stations, as well as frequent blackouts, and some crucial medicines have run out.

“In order for the country to get some sense of normalcy back, we urgently need to have a government in place, so that law enforcement officers can control these mobs because otherwise they could go crazy,” said MP Harsha De Silva to Al Jazeera. .

Sri Lankan business groups are also leaning on the country’s politicians to find a solution quickly.

In a statement on Tuesday, the Garment Association Joint Forum, which represents Sri Lanka’s vital textile industry, said it was “critical” that a new government take over.

Police use water cannon and tear gas to disperse protesting university students
Police use a water cannon and tear gas to disperse university students demanding the resignation of President Gotabaya Rajapaksa in Colombo on May 6. [Ishara S Kodikara/AFP]

What happens next?

President Rajapaksa has no prime minister and no cabinet, which was automatically dissolved after his brother’s resignation.

You can now select a member of parliament to become the next prime minister and form a cabinet. His election will require the support of a majority of the 225-member legislature. It is unclear whether he still has enough support in parliament for his candidate to pass.

The president could try to form a unity government, but it will likely be difficult to convince opposition members to join.

If the president resigns while there is no prime minister, the speaker of parliament will become interim president for one month, during which parliament must select a member to become president until elections can be held.

Furthermore, a parliamentary motion to impeach Rajapaksa would not be easy. It would need the backing of the speaker of parliament, the Supreme Court, and the support of at least 150 legislators. Opposition parties do not have a majority in parliament, which makes the process even more difficult.

In the 45 years that Sri Lanka has been governed by an executive presidential system, there has been one failed attempt to remove a president. The constitution gives the president broad powers as commander-in-chief of the armed forces and head of the cabinet, as well as the power to appoint the chief justice, chief of police, and others.

The president, despite his extensive powers, still needs a prime minister and a cabinet to carry out executive functions. The current uncertainty about the president’s next moves and the administrative vacuum have raised fears of a military takeover, especially if the violence escalates.

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