Political unrest in Sri Lanka sows concern for recovery

A day after the Sri Lankan president fled, Mohamed Ishad waited outside an immigration office near the capital, clutching a folder of documents he hopes will get his passport renewed so he can leave too .

With the country in the grip of its worst economic crisis, Ishad is jobless, relies on relatives for financial assistance and sells vegetables to feed his wife and three children. He wants to go to Japan and find work there so he can send money home.

Ishad is devastated to leave his family behind, but feels there is no choice – or opportunity – in his country. “Living in Sri Lanka right now is not good – if you want a good life you have to leave,” he said. Not only has the economy collapsed, but “there is hardly any functioning government at the moment.”

The bankruptcy forced the island nation’s government into near paralysis. Its once-beloved and now reviled former president Gotabaya Rajapaksa fled to Singapore before stepping down last week. Acting President and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe is seen as his proxy and opposed by angry mobs.

Parliament is set to elect a new president on Wednesday, paving the way for a new government, but it’s unclear whether that’s enough to fix a shattered economy and appease a furious nation of 22 million that has become disillusioned with the politicians of all sides.

The political rowdiness has deepened concerns that solutions to the crisis, including crucial aid from the International Monetary Fund, could be delayed.

“Right now, the eye is closed,” said Dayan Jayatilleka, a former diplomat and political analyst. “It’s like in the middle of a serious surgery, everyone from the top surgeon to the anesthesiologist ran out of the operating room to start a revolution – but they have to come back and complete the operation. before the patient dies.”

The IMF is monitoring the situation closely, but any bailout will depend on Sri Lanka’s debt restructuring strategy and political stability. “People are probably wondering, who are we talking to? You don’t care about the economy? Will the real president please stand up?” said Jayatilleka.

For months, the country has been on edge, triggered by a currency crisis that has crippled imports of essentials like fuel, food and medicine. Doctors are warning people not to get sick as families struggle to eat three meals a day in a country that was once an inspiration across South Asia for its growing middle class and high per capita income .

Today, the government has a debt of $51 billion and is unable to repay its loans. Its currency collapsed by 80%, making imports more expensive and worsening inflation. Sri Lanka has only $25 million in usable foreign exchange reserves and needs $6 billion to stay afloat over the next few months.

“Gotabaya’s resignation is a problem solved – there are so many more. They will continue if we don’t do the right thing in choosing our leaders,” said Bhasura Wickremesinghe, a 24-year-old marine engineering student.

The most controversial presidential candidate is Wickremesinghe, who can count on the support of the ruling party. Protesters have rallied for weeks to oust him from office, accusing him of protecting the Rajapaksa dynasty. If nominated and chosen, it will be a “powder keg,” Jayatilleka said.

The six-time prime minister, who is also finance minister, was appointed by Rajapaksa in May to begin tough negotiations with lenders and financial institutions. He also promised to overhaul the political system to cut presidential powers. But its unpopularity grew as queues for fuel grew longer, food prices rose and power cuts continued.

He recently called protesters “fascists” and imposed a state of emergency after his office was seized and his private residence burned down.

The other candidates are Dullas Alahapperuma, a former minister under Rajapaksa who is supported by some members of the ruling coalition, and Anura Dissanayake, a Marxist leader whose public support has grown during the crisis. An expected candidate, Sajith Premadasa, the leader of the main opposition party, gave his support to Alahapperuma.

Wickremesinghe is the only lawmaker from his party to hold a seat in parliament after suffering a humiliating defeat in 2020, limiting his public support and political clout. Many do not see him as a legitimate leader despite his seasoned political career and expertise, said Bhavani Fonseka, senior fellow at the Colombo-based Center for Policy Alternatives.

“This political uncertainty is a killer for the economy – which needs to be resolved quickly and in a way that satisfies the people of the country,” said WA Wijewardena, former deputy governor of Sri Lanka’s central bank. An immediate roadmap is needed, focused on boosting exports, raising revenue through new taxes and cutting spending, but none of this can be achieved without government. stable in place, he added.

Many people yearn for tangible change in their lives right now, Fonseka said, and don’t care about complex negotiations. “For them it’s the main thing fuel and food – do they get it or not?”

She said whoever forms government “cannot govern like before, they will have to engage more with the public and protesters to show that they are different”.

“But if it’s someone who doesn’t have the trust or confidence of the people, then the tumultuous protests will continue, and there will be no stability or solutions in sight.”

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By KRUTIKA PATHI and BHARATHA MALLAWARACHI Associated Press

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