Sri Lankan President Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s ruling coalition has lost its majority in parliament and the newly appointed finance minister has resigned as the House is set to reconvene on Tuesday for the first time since the imposition of emergency amid mass protests and demands for the president’s resignation.
Ali Sabry was sworn in as finance minister on Monday after the entire cabinet resigned amid growing public unrest over shortages of food and fuel and prolonged power cuts in the Indian Ocean island nation.
At least 41 legislators from the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) walked out of the alliance on Tuesday, which could undermine President Rajapaksa’s ability to ratify a state of emergency imposed on Friday to quell the growing public protests.
“Our party is on the side of the people,” said Maithripala Sirisena, leader of the SLFP which withdrew its support for Rajapaksa’s coalition.
The state of emergency is due to expire on Thursday next week unless it is ratified in a parliamentary vote. All opposition parties and even some lawmakers from Rajapaksa’s party have announced their intention to vote against extending the ordinance.
President Rajapaksa dissolved his cabinet and sought to form a unity government to quell public anger, but the opposition has rejected the offer, calling it “nonsensical”. It has demanded Rajapaksa resign over the country’s worsening shortages of food, fuel and medicines.
“We will not be joining this government,” Eran Wickramaratne of the main opposition Samagi Jana Balawegaya (SJB) party told the AFP news agency. “The Rajapaksa family must step down.”
The president’s elder brother, Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa, remains in his post.
Rajapaksa’s overture came as armed troops looked to quell more demonstrations over what the government acknowledges is the country’s worst economic crisis since independence from the United Kingdom in 1948.
Police fired tear gas and water cannon to disperse thousands of protesters trying to storm the private home of the prime minister – the head of the political clan – in Tangalle, once a bastion of support for the family in the south.
Demonstrations have roiled the country of 22 million despite emergency laws allowing troops to detain participants and a weekend curfew and a brief ban on social media on Monday.
Crowds have attempted to storm the homes of more than a dozen government figures, including the president’s house in Colombo, where protesters torched the vehicles of security forces, who fired rubber bullets and tear gas in response.
The country has seen prolonged power cuts lasting up to 13 hours. A lack of foreign exchange has stalled imports of food and medicines.
The critical lack of foreign currency has left Sri Lanka struggling to service its $51bn foreign debt, which was made worse by a dip in vital revenue from tourism and remittances caused by the pandemic.
Economists say Sri Lanka’s crisis has been exacerbated by government mismanagement, years of accumulated borrowing and ill-advised tax cuts.
The government plans to negotiate an International Monetary Fund (IMF) bailout, but talks are yet to begin. The IMF said on Tuesday that it is monitoring political and economic developments in Sri Lanka “very closely”.
“IMF staff is looking forward to program discussions with the authorities, including during the visit of the newly appointed Finance Minister to Washington later this month,” IMF Sri Lanka mission chief Masahiro Nozaki said in a statement.