Wednesday, May 18, 2022

Sri Lanka’s political deadlock: what happens next?

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Sri Lanka’s new prime minister has suffered early setbacks as he struggles to form a unity government that can steer the island nation through its crippling economic crisis.

Ranil Wickremesinghe, 73, was appointed late Thursday by the country’s deeply unpopular president, but several opposition parties have already said they will not support his premiership.

AFP reviews Sri Lanka’s political deadlock and what could happen next.

– Why was a new premier appointed? –

Wickremesinghe was tapped to replace Mahinda Rajapaksa, the elder brother of the president and the head of a dynasty that has dominated Sri Lanka’s politics over the past two decades.

Mahinda resigned on Monday after his supporters attacked demonstrators who had been protesting peacefully against the government for weeks.

At least nine people were killed and more than 200 injured in ensuing clashes, with dozens of Rajapaksa loyalist homes set on fire by furious mobs.

Mahinda has since been banned by a court from leaving the country and fled the capital Colombo.

President Gotabaya Rajapaksa appointed Wickremesinghe in the hopes of forming a unity government and heading off calls for his own resignation.

– Can Wickremesinghe form a government? –

Wickremesinghe is seen as a pro-West, free-market reformist, and his appointment could help expedite an urgently needed bailout from the International Monetary Fund.

But one senior opposition lawmaker has already rebuffed an offer to helm the finance ministry, and four opposition parties have said his premiership is illegitimate.

It is also doubtful whether a unity government under Wickremesinghe will be enough to calm public anger if President Rajapaksa continues to resist calls for his resignation.

However, Paikiasothy Saravanamuttu of the Colombo-based Centre for Policy Alternatives think tank told AFP that Wickremesinghe would likely be able to secure a parliamentary majority with the support of Rajapaksa-allied lawmakers.

“He’ll appoint a cabinet and get on with the job of dealing with the IMF, and getting bridging finances which I think is his most important priority,” Saravanamuttu told AFP.

– What happens if he fails? –

Wickremesinghe is a veteran of Sri Lanka’s political scene, having already served as prime minister on five previous occasions.

But if it turns out he is unable to secure parliamentary support, he will have to resign again within days of being sworn in.

That could pave the way for another opposition lawmaker to take office and try their own luck, but the clock is ticking.

Sri Lanka’s central bank chief has said the nation is just days away from a full economic meltdown, with foreign currency reserves below what is needed to pay for a single week’s worth of vital imports.

– Will there be new elections? –

President Rajapaksa does not have the power to dissolve parliament before half of its term is completed in mid-2023.

But parliament can vote to dissolve itself, which would allow for fresh elections.

Staging a new poll at this point would be extremely difficult, and the country’s already parlous economic situation would inevitably deteriorate further in the weeks before a vote could be held.

The cash-strapped government is unlikely to be able to pay for it or even print ballots, with a nationwide paper shortage earlier forcing schools to cancel examinations.

– Could the military seize power? –

With armoured personnel carriers on the streets of Colombo and thousands of troops enforcing a nationwide curfew, opposition lawmakers have expressed fears of a possible military takeover.

Defence ministry secretary Kamal Gunaratne, Sri Lanka’s top military official, told a press conference this week that his forces “had no such intentions”.

Despite a long history of civil war, authoritarian governance and powerful security forces, Sri Lanka has never been subjected to a coup.

A solitary attempt in 1962 ended in failure without a single shot fired.

Saravanamuttu said Wickremesinghe would have to act quickly to revoke Sri Lanka’s state of emergency and quell rumours of a takeover.

“Otherwise the government will be absolutely doomed,” he added. “And the country too.”

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