Sri Lankan President Gotabaya Rajapaksa on Monday invited all parties in Parliament to work with him to jointly address the country’s spiralling crisis, even as citizens’ protests calling for his resignation escalated across the country.
All major opposition parties, however, rejected the offer, reminding the President of the people’s chief demand that he and his family members in government quit immediately.
Attributing the current crisis to “several economic factors and global developments”, Mr. Rajapaksa sought solutions “within a democratic framework”, days after imposing an Emergency that critics see as a move to quell dissent. Mr. Rajapaksa’s outreach comes a day after en-masse resignations in Sri Lanka’s Cabinet, amidst escalating anti-government protests in the wake of a worsening economic downturn, marked by crippling shortages and long power cuts.
Scores of citizens have been protesting incessantly across the island nation, even defying curfews during the weekend. On Monday evening, massive crowds gathered at different locations in the capital Colombo, signalling a heightening resistance from citizens to the Rajapaksa government that came to power promising ‘prosperity and splendour’ to the people.
Several hundred youth dressed in black, middle-class business people, lawyers, journalists, and other professionals were out waving Sri Lankan flags and chanting anti-government slogans. Popular chants at the spontaneous citizens’ protests included “Gota go home”, “Gota lunatic”, reflecting the public rage against the President and the ruling clan.
“I don’t want anyone from the Rajapaksa family to be in power. Not even their cat,” said an angry woman at a late-night protest on Sunday. “Cabinet reshuffle is not equal to change,” read many posters at Monday’s protests, rejecting the President’s latest political manoeuvre.
While all ministers in Cabinet, including three members of the Rajapaksa family, resigned on Sunday night, President Gotabaya Rajapaksa and Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa remain in office.
“Considering this a national need, the time has come to work together for the sake of all the citizens and future generations. The President invites all political parties representing in the Parliament to come together to accept ministerial portfolios in order to find solutions to this national crisis,” said a statement issued by the Presidential Media Division.
Hours later, he appointed four ministers, who were part of his earlier Cabinet, to the portfolios of Finance, Education, Foreign Affairs and Highways. Ali Sabry, a lawyer who was Justice Minister in the former Cabinet, will now helm the Finance Ministry, the most importantportfolio as Sri Lanka struggles to rescue its crashing economy. The three other ministers have retained their portfolios.
The Opposition Samagi Jana Balawegaya (SJB) has said its members will not accept any position under the Rajapaksas. “The public want Gota and the Rajapaksas to go home. We stand with them in that call,” SJB MP Rajitha Senaratne said. SJB Leader Sajith Premadasa earlier told The Hindu that he would never accept a “political deal” and would come to power only through a people’s mandate.
The Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) has also turned down the President’s invitation to join government. “President Gotabaya Rajapaksa must tender his resignation first. Thereafter, we can discuss a system to manage this crisis,” its Leader Anura Kumara Dissanayake has said.
Former Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe of the United National Party too rejected the President’s proposal, emphasising the need for a parliamentary response to the crisis, involving the leaders of all parties.
“People have not asked for a cabinet reshuffle, their message is clear, they are asking the Rajapaksas to go. It is nonsensical that the government is playing musical chairs,” said Tamil National Alliance spokesman M.A. Sumanthiran.
Opposition parties have, however, acknowledged the need for an interim arrangement and called for a parliamentary response to arrive at the same. “This crisis cannot be solved overnight. It might take six months to two years to respond to it. We recognize the need for an interim arrangement, but that cannot be determined by the President or the Prime Minister, when they have clearly lost their mandate,” Mr. Sumanthiran said.