President and PM: 2 men at the heart of the Sri Lankan crisis
As the crisis in Sri Lanka reached its peak over the weekend, two men at the center of the turmoil caused by the country’s economic collapse vowed to heed the call of tens of thousands of angry protesters and step down.
One is President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, the last of six members of the country’s most influential family still clinging to power.
The other is Rajapaksa’s chosen prime minister, Ranil Wickremesinghe, a seasoned opposition politician who was brought in to lift the country out of the abyss.
On Saturday, massive crowds descended on the capital, Colombo, broke into Rajapaksa’s official residence and occupied his seaside office. Hours later, as political party leaders in parliament called on the two leaders to retreat, protesters also stormed Wickremesinghe’s residence and set it on fire.
The culmination of months-long protests on Saturday led to them both agreeing to step down. Rajapaksa, whose whereabouts are unknown, said he would leave office on Wednesday, according to the Speaker of Parliament. Wickremesinghe said he would leave as soon as opposition parties agree on a unity government.
Here’s a look at their rise and fall:
For decades, the powerful landowning Rajapaksa family dominated local politics in their rural southern district before Mahinda Rajapaksa was elected president in 2005. Appealing to the nationalist sentiment of the island’s majority Buddhist-Sinhalese, he led Sri Lanka to a triumphant victory over ethnic Tamil rebels in 2009, ending a brutal 26-year civil war that had divided the country. His younger brother, Gotabaya, was a powerful civil servant and military strategist in the Ministry of Defense.
Mahinda remained in office until 2015, when he lost to opposition led by his former assistant. But the family made a comeback in 2019, when Gotabaya won the presidential election on a promise to restore security following the Easter Sunday terrorist suicide attacks that killed 290 people.
He vowed to bring back the heavy-handed nationalism that had made his family popular with the Buddhist majority and lift the country out of an economic slump with a message of stability and development.
Instead, he made a series of fatal mistakes that sparked an unprecedented crisis.
As tourism plunged in the wake of bombings and foreign loans on controversial development projects – including a port and airport in the president’s home region – had to be repaid, Rajapaksa disobeyed economic advisers and imposed the largest tax cuts in the country’s history. . It was meant to boost spending, but critics warned it would slash government finances. Pandemic shutdowns and a misguided ban on chemical fertilizers have further hurt the fragile economy.
The country quickly ran out of money and could not repay its huge debts. Shortages of food, cooking gas, fuel and medicine stoked public anger over what many saw as mismanagement, corruption and nepotism.
The family’s breakdown began in April, when growing protests forced three of Rajapaksa’s relatives, including the finance minister, out of their Cabinet posts and another out of his cabinet post. In May, government supporters attacked protesters in a wave of violence that left nine people dead. Protesters’ anger turned towards Mahinda Rajapaksa, who was pressured to resign as prime minister and took refuge at a heavily fortified naval base.
But Gotabaya refused to go, sparking chants in the streets of “Gota Go Home!” Instead, he saw his savior in Ranil Wickremesinghe.
Six times Prime Minister, Wickremesinghe’s last mandate was undoubtedly the most difficult. Appointed in May by Rajapaksa, he was hired to help restore international credibility as his government negotiated a bailout package with the International Monetary Fund.
Wickremesinghe, who was also finance minister, became the public face of the crisis, giving weekly speeches in parliament as he entered tough negotiations with financial institutions, lenders and allies to fill coffers and relieve citizens impatient.
He raised taxes and pledged to reshuffle a government that had increasingly concentrated power under the presidency, a pattern that many say tipped the country into crisis.
In his new job, he left little doubt about the grave future that awaited him. “The next two months will be the most difficult of our lives,” he told Sri Lankans in early June, weeks before he told parliament the country had hit rock bottom. “Our economy has completely collapsed,” he said.
Ultimately, observers say, he lacked both political clout and public support to get the job done. He was a one-man party in Parliament – the only lawmaker from his party to hold a seat after suffering a humiliating defeat in the 2020 election.
His reputation had already been tarnished by his previous term as prime minister, when he was in an uneasy power-sharing deal with then-president Maithripala Sirisena. A breakdown in communication between them has been blamed on intelligence failures that led to the 2019 terror attack.
With no respite from people queuing for fuel, food and medicine, Wickremesinghe became increasingly unpopular. Many protesters say his appointment simply put pressure on Rajapaksa to resign. But analysts doubt a new leader can do much more, fearing instead that political uncertainty will only deepen the crisis.
For more of AP’s coverage in Sri Lanka, go to https://apnews.com/hub/sri-lanka