Sri Lankan President Gotabaya Rajapaksa has defied calls to step down and vowed to form a new government after violent clashes this week left eight dead in an escalation of a months-long crisis over food and fuel shortages.
“I will give the new government and the new prime minister a chance to start a new program to move the country forward,” he said in a televised speech, adding that once stability is restored, he will discuss limiting his executive powers with all political parties. .
Gotabaya Rajapaksa earlier extended a nationwide curfew until Thursday morning, after government supporters on Monday launched attacks on protesters who had camped for weeks in central Colombo calling for his ouster. Rajapaksa opponents then attacked ruling party lawmakers and burned down some of their houses, driving key members of the family into hiding.
His brother, Mahinda Rajapaksa, resigned as prime minister, prompting the dissolution of the cabinet, leaving him without a government to negotiate with the International Monetary Fund and creditors over an $8.6 billion debt due this year. An agreement is essential to stabilize the nation’s finances and help the government provide essential goods to the island’s 22 million people.
Gotabaya Rajapaksa is refusing to resign and the opposition has rejected his offers of a unity government without constitutional changes that would reduce the powers of the presidency.
“You need to give the country a time frame on what is going to happen,” Jehan Perera, executive director of the National Peace Council in Colombo, said of the president. “This is one way he can redeem himself as a statesman before things get worse.”
This is what could happen next:
1. The president is impeached
Under the Sri Lankan constitution, removing a president is difficult and time-consuming. First, two-thirds of parliament must pass a resolution explaining why a president is unfit for office, then it must be investigated by the Supreme Court, and then, if the justices agree with the findings, lawmakers must vote again.
Officials from Sri Lanka’s ruling Popular Front party say they still have a majority in parliament, and last week they showed they had the numbers in a vote for a new vice president. It is unclear whether the violence, which led to attacks on the homes of more than two dozen Rajapaksa-linked lawmakers and former ministers, and the death of a ruling party lawmaker, changed that equation at all.
2. The president forms a unity government with the opposition
Now that his brother has left as prime minister, Gotabaya Rajapaksa has made another proposal to the opposition to form an all-party government. The main opposition parties have consistently rejected his offer, as the president would still retain sweeping powers.
Sri Lanka’s influential Buddhist clergy and Bar Association have proposed an interim government that would rule the country for 18 months while lawmakers craft constitutional amendments to limit presidential powers. But any government that does not have broad-based support is likely to be unstable.
3. The president dissolves parliament and holds new elections
The constitution does not allow the president to dissolve parliament until halfway through his five-year term, which is not until February 2023. But it does allow parliament to request dissolution before then by passing a resolution.
While some opposition leaders have floated this option in recent days, elections will also be costly and time-consuming. And even if the opposition wins, Gotabaya Rajapaksa would still retain key powers as president. He has the power to appoint a prime minister who, in his opinion, commands the majority of parliament, and will have great influence in the appointment and dismissal of cabinet ministers. He can also be attached to any ministerial portfolio.
That is why the opposition has introduced a bill to curtail the powers of the presidency rather than push for an election. Mahinda Rajapaksa’s previous cabinet had also launched the drafting of a new bill to curb the executive presidency.
While an election may give the opposition the two-thirds majority it needs to change the constitution, that may need to be backed by a referendum and possibly tied to the Supreme Court, all of which could drag on for months.
4. The president resigns, flees the country
This is what the protesters expect with their chants of “Go Home Gota”, and it cannot be ruled out if the violence spreads. If the president resigns, immediately whoever becomes prime minister would take over, with the speaker of the House next in line.
Parliament then has one month to elect his replacement by an absolute majority through a secret ballot, in accordance with the constitution. Any lawmaker would be eligible, including an outsider who takes a position on the party’s list before the vote. The new president will hold office for the remainder of the term, which ends in 2024.
Nishan De Mel, executive director of Verite Research, said Gotabaya Rajapaksa has three main options: resignation, impeachment or a compromise that includes reducing presidential powers. “He has been resisting all three options,” De Mel said.
5. Military coup
While Sri Lanka has a history of authoritarian rule, if someone stages a coup, it’s probably to help the Rajapaksas. The brothers have ruled Sri Lanka for 13 of the last 17 years, often with an iron fist. Gotabaya Rajapaksa is widely credited with ending a 26-year separatist conflict with ethnic Tamil rebels and has appointed more than two dozen serving or retired servicemen to key posts.
Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s main allies include Sri Lankan Army Chief General Shavendra Silva, who has been sanctioned by the United States on accusations of war crimes committed during the last phase of the conflict with the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, and Kamal Gunaratne, Secretary to the Defense Minister. who is accused of similar actions. Both men have denied any wrongdoing.
Silva has told foreign diplomats that the Sri Lankan military would respect the constitution and was “prepared to provide security and protection to the state as required”.
For now, Mr. Rajapaksa has given powers to the army under the emergency to detain people without a warrant for 24 hours while private property can be searched.
“In a country where we don’t have a prime minister and a cabinet and the state of emergency gives wide powers to an executive with extensive ties to the armed forces, that combination is extremely dynamic,” said Bhavani Fonseka, a Colombo-based senior researcher. for the Center for Alternative Policies. “It can lead to scenarios that Sri Lanka hasn’t seen before, even with the civil war.”