COLOMBO: Sri Lanka’s new prime minister won crucial support from two main opposition parties Monday, easing the pressure on the ruling Rajapaksa clan in the face of the island’s worsening economic crisis. The main opposition SJB party appeared to drop its demands that President Gotabaya Rajapaksa should step down before backing a coalition to manage the crumbling economy. The SJB, or Samagi Jana Balawegaya, declined to join a unity government led by new Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe, but said it would “unconditionally support the positive efforts to revive the economy”.
“It is important to save the country from the grave economic crisis,” it said in a brief statement. And the second-largest opposition party, the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP), said it would join the cabinet. Even so, thousands of protestors remained camped outside the sea-front office of 73-year-old President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, whose brother Mahinda quit as premier last week, demanding his resignation in turn.
Shortages of food, fuel and medicines, along with record inflation and lengthy blackouts, have brought severe hardships to the country’s 22 million people, in the worst financial crisis since independence from Britain in 1948. Wickremesinghe’s appointment last week – his sixth turn as prime minister – has so far failed to quell public anger at the government for bringing Sri Lanka to the brink of economic collapse.
Troops patrolled the streets as consumers queued up for scarce supplies and the government announced that a six-hour night curfew will be reimposed from Monday after a 24-hour break. The curfew was relaxed on Sunday, the first day of a two-day holiday for Vesak, the anniversary of Buddha’s birth, enlightenment and death.
Wickremesinghe has struggled to form a “unity government” and a cabinet swearing-in scheduled for Monday afternoon was pushed back as talks continued on sharing portfolios. Four ministers were sworn in on Saturday, all from Rajapaksa’s Sri Lanka Podu Jana Peramuna (SLPP) party.
But there is no finance minister yet, and it is widely expected that Wickremesinghe will retain the crucial portfolio to lead ongoing negotiations with the IMF for an urgent bailout. The new prime minister has called for international support and was scheduled to address the nation later Monday to outline his economic revival plan, his office said.
He held talks Sunday with World Bank and Asian Development Bank representatives in Colombo on medicine, food, fuel and fertiliser supplies, his office said in a statement. “The government is facing the immediate challenge of securing funds to pay for the fuel requirement for this coming week,” it said, adding the government was “exploring other options” in the face of dollar shortages at banks.
Long queues stretched outside the few fuel stations that were still open on Monday as motorists waited for rationed petrol. Heavily armed troops were patrolling the streets with a state of emergency still in effect after at least nine people were killed in violence last week. Police said over 350 people have been arrested in connection with last week’s mob violence. – AFP