Prime minister as well as Rajapaksa will step down after months of protests culminated in attacks on their homes

Sri Lanka’s main opposition parties have hurriedly moved to form an all-party unity government a day after the president and the prime minister said they would resign from office after mounting public pressure.

On Sunday, leaders from the main opposition political parties met to discuss an effective transition of power, following the much anticipated resignation of President Gotabaya Rajapaksa on 13 July.

Caretaker prime minister Ranil Wickremesinghe, who has only been in office since May, also agreed to step down if an all-party government could be formed to take over the running of the country. Wickremesinghe, whose private residence was set alight by protesters on Saturday, emphasised that the country was facing critical times and needed a stable government.

Protesters remained in Rajapaksa’s residence, his seaside office and the prime minister’s home, saying they would stay until the resignations are official. The president’s whereabouts was unknown.

Protesters angry with Sri Lanka’s economic crisis gather near the president’s residence in Colombo on Saturday © Chamila Karunarathne/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock

Soldiers were deployed around the city and the chief of defence staff, Shavendra Silva, called for public support to maintain law and order. But troops simply watched from afar as crowds of people splashed in the garden pool of Rajapaksa’s sprawling residence, lounged on beds and took selfies of themselves on their mobile phones to capture the moment.

Wimal Weerawansa, a MP who was formerly with the ruling party but broke away as the country’s economy collapsed, said that the opposition parties had “agreed in principle to form a government of unity with all parties’ participation for an interim period.” Discussions were said to be still continuing about who will be the new prime minister and president.

The unity government is likely to be only a temporary measure until parliamentary elections can be held. However, whoever takes over the running of the country faces a difficult road ahead, with Sri Lanka’s economic woes showing no sign of relenting, and warnings that the fuel and food shortages could worsen. They could also face issues of public legitimacy. Many of the protesters who have been demonstrating against President Rajapaksa are not supportive of many of the MPs, who they view as still part of the political establishment that caused Sri Lanka’s downfall.

Rajapaksa has been president since November 2019 and, alongside five other members of his family who held senior political posts, stands accused of corruption, bankrupting the country and triggering the worst economic crisis since independence.

President Rajapaksa had been facing months of sustained protests calling for him to step down from power but he had repeatedly refused. However, after a dramatic series of events unfolded on Saturday, when his offices and residence were overtaken by protesters and the house of the prime minister was set alight, he was faced with little option but to announce he would step down, a rare and historic triumph of people power in Sri Lanka.

People play cards in the official residence of Sri Lanka’s prime minister on Sunday

The president’s promise to resign by Wednesday in order to oversee a “peaceful transition” was conveyed through the parliamentary speaker late on Saturday night. But it was not followed up by an official address or letter of resignation and on Sunday he still remained in hiding, reportedly under the protection of the military.

However, despite his stark absence, he still seemed to be involved in the running of the country with reports on Sunday he had ordered a freshly delivered supply of cooking gas to be distributed across the country.

According to the constitution, once President Rajapaksa steps down, the parliamentary speaker Mahinda Yapa Abeywardena will temporarily take over for 30 days, and then parliament will have to vote to appoint a formal presidential successor.

Particularly crucial for Sri Lanka is to have a government in place that can continue to negotiate with the International Monetary Fund (IMF). The country, which has already defaulted on its $51bn of foreign debt, is hoping for an emergency $4bn bailout as its foreign reserves have run out and it can no longer afford to import fuel, food and medicine, leading to what the UN recently described as an imminent “humanitarian crisis”.

The IMF said on Sunday that it hoped for “a resolution of the current situation that will allow for resumption of our dialogue”.

The US secretary of state, Antony Blinken, said that Washington was tracking the developments in Sri Lanka and urged parliament to work quickly to implement solutions and address the people’s discontent.

Speaking at a news conference in Bangkok, Blinken said that the United States condemns attacks against the peaceful demonstrators while calling for a full investigation into any protest-related violence.

Pope Francis opened his Sunday remarks after noon prayers at the Vatican by voicing concern about Sri Lanka.

“I unite myself to the pain of the people of Sri Lanka, who continue to suffer the effects of the political and economic instability,’’ the pontiff told the public in St Peter’s Square. “Together with the bishops of the country, I renew my appeal for peace, and I implore those who have authority not to ignore the cry of the poor and the needs of the people.’’

Source: The Guardian