Sri Lankan government in disarray as economic crisis deepens, health crisis looms

  • The government is losing a majority in parliament
  • The Minister of Finance resigns the day after the appointment
  • Shares are rising after the events in parliament
  • The opposition is demanding the resignation of the president and prime minister

COLOMBA, April 5 (Reuters) – Dozens of Sri Lankan lawmakers withdrew from the ruling coalition on Tuesday, leaving the government of President Gotabai Rajapaksa in a minority in parliament, struggling to quell protests amid the country’s worst economic crisis in decades.

Another setback for the administration was Finance Minister Ali Sabri resigned the day after his appointment and ahead of important talks with the International Monetary Fund on a loan program.

Rajapaksa disbanded his cabinet on Monday and tried to form a unity government as public unrest arose over how the ruling family coped with a difficult economy, leading to food and fuel shortages and prolonged power outages.

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The Doctors Organization also informed the government of an acute shortage of drugs that could collapse the health care system.

Politically, possible next steps could include the appointment of a new prime minister to replace President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s older brother or early parliamentary elections ahead of a scheduled vote in 2025.

There were no immediate signs of what was planned.

Sabri said in a statement of resignation to the president that he believed he was “acting in the interests of the country.”

“At this crucial stage, the country needs stability to overcome the current financial crisis and difficulties,” he said in a letter reviewed by Reuters, also proposing to resign from his parliamentary seat if the president wants to bring in someone from outside.

Street demonstrations against food and fuel shortages caused by a shortage of foreign currency for imports began last month, but have intensified in recent days, leading in some cases to clashes between protesters and police.

Dozens of protesters gathered peacefully near the prime minister’s residence on Tuesday.

“WITH PEOPLE”

The names of 41 deputies who will leave the coalition have been announced by party leaders in parliament.

They have now become independent members, leaving the Rajapaksa government with less than 113 members needed to maintain a majority in the 225-member chamber.

There has not yet been a vote count, although the Rajapaksa minority government may find decision-making more difficult. Independent parliamentarians, however, can continue to support the government’s proposals in the House.

“There is an endless shortage of basic necessities, including fuel and gas for cooking. Hospitals are on the verge of closing because there is no medicine,” Maitripala Sirisen, leader of the Sri Lankan Freedom Party, which refused to support the Rajapaksa coalition, told parliament.

“At that time, our party is on the side of the people.”

Another sign of a desperate lack of funds Sri Lanka has announced the temporary closure of its embassies in Oslo and Baghdad, as well as the Consulate General in Sydney from 30 April.

The foreign ministry said it was restructuring Sri Lanka’s diplomatic mission because of “the economic situation and foreign exchange constraints facing the country.”

The Association of Public Health Workers, which represents more than 16,000 doctors nationwide, said there is an acute shortage of drugs, including rescue drugs.

“Failure to provide a continuous and adequate supply of essential medicines will lead to the collapse of the entire health care system,” the health ministry said in a letter.

“This will create a life-threatening situation for our citizens who have already faced an unprecedented crisis.”

Reuters Graphics

SHARES GROW

The All-Share Index (.CSE) Colombo jumped about 6% when lawmakers made their positions clear in parliament.

Sirisen, along with other lawmakers, called on the president and prime minister to present a clear plan to address the financial turmoil in Sri Lanka.

But opposition parties – reflecting the mood of the protests that swept the 22-million-strong country – called for the two brothers to resign. A third brother, Basil Rajapaksa, resigned as finance minister on Sunday.

Protests have erupted in several regions of Sri Lanka, including its largest city, Colombo, over the country’s worst economic crisis in decades.

Opposition parties also rejected a move to form a unity government that would include all parties represented in parliament.

“There should be no voice that contradicts the voice in the streets. And the voice should happen,” said Sajit Predadasa, leader of Samaga’s Jan Balaway, Sri Lanka’s main opposition alliance.

“People want this president and the whole government to resign.”

A small group of people protested near parliament as police stood guard with tear gas and water cannons.

“If the government loses a majority, you can see the opposition passing a no-confidence vote, but there is a parliamentary procedure that bypasses this first and is unlikely to happen immediately,” said Levi’s lawyer Niranjan Ganeshanathan, who specializes in constitutional issues.

If a no-confidence vote is passed, the president could appoint a new prime minister, he said.

The opposition may also issue a resolution dissolving parliament and calling for early elections, Ganeshanathan added.

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Report by Udita Jayasinhe and Devjiot Goshal in Colombo; Additional report by Varun Karunatsilake in Colombo; Author: Devjot Goshal and Krishna N. Das; Edited by Raju Gopolakrishnan and Bernadette Baum

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