Sri Lankan President Gotabaya Rajapaksa has said he will name a new prime minister and cabinet this week, after his older brother and former prime minister Mahinda Rajapaksa resigned following deadly violence in the country.
The new prime minister and cabinet will have a majority in the 225-seat parliament, Rajapaksa said, adding that he will bring constitutional reforms to give more power to parliament.
“I am taking steps to form a new government to control the current situation, to prevent the country from falling into anarchy as well as to maintain the government affairs that have been paralyzed,” he said in a statement on Wednesday.
The move followed comments from Sri Lanka’s central bank governor, who said he would resign within weeks unless political stability was restored.
P Nandalal Weerasinghe, appointed central bank chief last month to help the island nation of 22 million people find a way out of the worst economic crisis in its history, said a stable government was essential to stem the turmoil.
“I have clearly told the president and other political party leaders that unless political stability is established in the next two weeks, I will resign,” Weerasinghe told reporters.
“Without political stability, it doesn’t matter who runs the central bank,” he said. “There will be no way to stop the economic deterioration.”
Ordinary Sri Lankans blame the government led by President Gotabaya Rajapaksa and his family for a collapse in the Indian Ocean nation that has reduced reserves to just around $50 million, crippling most imports and causing massive shortages. of essential items, such as cooking gas, fuel and medicine.
After more than a month of mostly peaceful demonstrations, public anger erupted into violence this week, when ruling party supporters stormed an anti-government protest camp, sparking clashes across the country and forcing the prime minister to resign.
Mahinda Rajapaksa, the president’s older brother, said he was resigning in the hope that a new unity government would take office.
But with mobs targeting ruling party politicians, the once-hugely popular former prime minister was taken to a military base in the northeast of the country, the defense secretary said.
“He will remain there for the next few days and when the situation normalizes, he can be transferred to a place of his choice,” said Kamal Gunaratne.
On Wednesday, police and soldiers patrolled the streets of Weeraketiya, the hometown of the Rajapaksa family, where shops and businesses were closed amid a curfew that runs until Thursday morning.
Nine dead, more than 200 injured
So far, at least nine people, including two police officers, have been killed in the violence across the country, which has also left more than 200 injured and 136 houses damaged, Gunaratne said.
“This is the time for all Sri Lankans to come together to overcome economic, social and political challenges,” President Rajapaksa said on Twitter.
“I urge all Sri Lankans to reject subversive attempts to push them into racial and religious disharmony. Promoting moderation, tolerance and coexistence is vital”.
It was not immediately clear what prompted his warning, but Sri Lanka has a long and bloody history of ethnic tension.
Pope Francis urged the government to “listen to the hopes of the people” and respect human rights and civil liberties.
Protesters have also called on the president to leave. Analysts say Rajapaksa can be impeached if he refuses to resign, although the opposition, which has rejected his calls for a unity government, lacks the necessary two-thirds majority in parliament.
No president has ever been successfully impeached and removed from office in Sri Lanka.
New government expected
Sri Lanka has sought urgent loans from the International Monetary Fund (IMF) following financial and other support from neighboring India and China, as violence has further hit a tourism-dependent economy hit by COVID-19.
The IMF expressed concern about the violence but said it would continue technical talks started Monday with Sri Lankan officials “to be fully prepared for political discussions once a new government has been formed.”
The president plans to meet with opposition politicians in a few days in the hope of forming a new government, a cabinet spokesman said on Tuesday.
Weerasinghe, the central bank chief, said a lack of foreign exchange could lead to severe fuel shortages and power cuts lasting up to 12 hours, which could worsen public anger and fuel protests.
“Even with political stability, it will take at least three months for talks with the IMF and at least six months for debt restructuring,” he said. “So a stable government is essential.”