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Sri Lanka Opposition Leader Says Stability Needs New Mandate

·3 min read

(Bloomberg) -- Sri Lanka needs a new government to tackle its economic crisis, according to the leader of the main opposition party, as its prime minister proposed a system to make the nation’s president and cabinet more accountable.

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“It’s time for a mandate, a fresh mandate,” Sajith Premadasa of the Samagi Jana Balawegaya party said in a Bloomberg interview. “People don’t want elections, they want solutions. But at the end of the day to resolve this gridlock, I think a fresh mandate is the only answer.”

The South Asian island nation has been in the worst economic tailspin of its independent history, with shortages of everything from fuel to medicine, power outages and inflation seen rising to 40% prompting angry protests and turning into political risk for the ruling Rajapaksa family.

The protesters and opposition have over the past months been demanding that President Gotabaya Rajapaksa step down and for the constitution to be amended to curtail the sweeping powers of his office.

“We are worried about the people’s suffering” and the priority is securing “basic amenities for people to live,” Premadasa said. “Most importantly, we need to have policy stability. We need to have some coherence with regard to our principles and fundamentals.”

Sri Lanka is currently negotiating for a bailout program with the International Monetary Fund, key to securing urgently needed funds from other lenders as well, and for restructuring its debt after defaulting for the first time.

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While side-stepping calls for his ouster, Rajapaksa earlier this month appointed long-time opponent Ranil Wickremesinghe to run the government as the largely peaceful protests took a violent turn. Wickremesinghe, viewed as something of a political survivor and having served as premier multiple times, was only able to return as lawmaker in 2021 through a system where parties with enough votes can nominate a member even without securing parliamentary seats.

Rajapaksa also appointed Wickeremesinghe as finance minister after opposition parties refused to take cabinet roles in a so-called unity government.

“Just because you conjure up, poach and formulate one’s own so-called multi-party government, do you get ideological coherence?” Premadasa said, criticizing Rajapaksa’s moves. “This is a mish mash; a political marriage of convenience, for ones own political survival.”

Anger Against Rajapaksa

The new prime minister, who said Sri Lankan citizens could face hard times until February including a scarcity of food, is also trying to contain anger against Rajapaksa by pushing through an amendment to the country’s constitution, which is expected to trim the wide-ranging powers of the president’s office.

The outcome of the amendments would follow discussions among lawmakers, Wickremesinghe said in a Bloomberg interview on May 26, adding that he was hoping for “the broadest possible support” among parties.

Wickremesinghe, in an address to the nation on Sunday, proposed setting up a system of parliamentary committees that would help increase government revenues, strengthen the banking system and boost the powers of the legislature while making the president and cabinet more accountable.

The Bar Association of Sri Lanka has already raised questions about the extent to which the amendments will scale back the sweeping powers that Rajapaksa gave to his office shortly after he returned to power in 2019.

“Tackling the economic and political crisis have to go together,” Premadasa said. “You can’t have this sort of decision making being further perpetuated because it may be the cause of many more crises.”

(Adds prime minister’s statement in 12th paragraph)

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