Sri Lanka’s prime minister resigns in the face of escalating protests
May 10th 2022 | COLOMBO AND DELHIPROTESTERS HAD been demanding the resignation of Mahinda Rajapaksa, Sri Lanka’s prime minister, for weeks. Even his own brother, President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, who is also in the protesters’ sights, had hinted that the time might have come for a graceful exit. Gota, as the president is known, apparently hoped that sacrificing his brother would mollify a public furious with his government’s handling of a worsening economic crisis.Mahinda refused to budge. On the morning of May 9th he hosted hundreds of supporters at his residence. Afterwards, many of them descended on the scenic seafront of Colombo, the capital, where protesters have been camping for over a month to demand that the Rajapaksas step down. Unmolested by police, Mahinda’s supporters attacked the protesters and burned down their encampment. In the early afternoon the prime minister sent out a half-hearted tweet calling for restraint. Three hours later, as the protesters counterattacked and the violence began to spiral out of control, he tweeted again to say that he had tendered his resignation to his brother. That triggered the dissolution of the cabinet, too.In theory, that could pave the way for a new government of national unity composed of representatives of all the main parties and led by a prime minister who enjoys cross-party support. But unity is the last thing on the minds of many Sri Lankans. Protesters, who up until that point had been mostly peaceful in their calls for Mahinda and Gota to go, retaliated against the attacks on them by running wild. They burned down the homes of many cabinet ministers, as well as a museum dedicated to the Rajapaksas. The buses that had carried government supporters into Colombo were set ablaze. A minister’s car was dumped in a lake. Some 220 people were injured as the violence continued into the evening and eight died, including a member of parliament who shot and killed a protester before taking his own life as a crowd surrounded his house, according to police reports. The attorney-general has called for an investigation into who ordered the attacks on the seafront protest camps.Any new government would have to undertake a series of painful economic reforms—a tall order in such a febrile atmosphere. A combination of bad policy and external shocks, notably a collapse of tourism during the covid-19 pandemic and spiking commodity prices following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, have depleted Sri Lanka’s foreign-currency reserves and raised consumer-price inflation to almost 30% year on year in April, from 19% in March. Sri Lankans have for nearly two months had to live with extended power cuts of up to 13 hours a day, soaring prices for staples such as rice and milk powder and shortages of essentials such as petrol and cooking gas—all largely a function of the lack of hard currency with which to pay for imports. The government’s foreign reserves are down to $50m—not even enough to cover a day’s worth of imports. It has burned through all its cash in recent months in a doomed effort to prop up the currency and service its huge foreign debts. On April 12th it conceded defeat and said it would stop paying interest, seek a bail-out from the IMF and ask creditors, including China and India, to restructure their loans. Since then the government has relied on temporary credit, mostly from India, to import essentials such as food and fuel. Further economic pain, in the form of spending cuts and tax rises, is bound to be a precondition of any bail-out or restructuring.But no progress can be made on negotiations with the IMF until a new government is in place. Parliament, which adjourned last week on security grounds until May 17th, is now expected to reconvene this week. Gota may then try to appoint a new prime minister. But there is no obvious, unifying candidate. Opposition politicians do not want to take responsibility for fixing the mess the Rajapaksas have contrived and do not want to work with Gota. But for the moment, at least, the president seems determined to resist calls that he, too, should resign. Both politically and economically, things will get worse before they get better.