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Sri Lanka’s president and prime minister offer to step down, but chaos remains

People pose for pictures inside the Sri Lanka's presidential palace, in Colombo on July 10, 2022, a day after it was overrun by anti-government protestors. - Sri Lanka's colonial-era presidential palace has embodied state authority for more than 200 years, but on July 10 it was the island's new symbol of "people power" after its occupant fled. (ARUN SANKAR/AFP via Getty Images/TNS)  (TRIBUNE NEWS SERVICE)
By Hafeel Farisz and Niha Masih Washington Post

COLOMBO, Sri Lanka – Political parties in Sri Lanka met Sunday morning, facing intense pressure to quickly form an interim government after the country’s president and prime minister agreed to step down following fierce anti-government protests.

No fresh protests were reported in Colombo but people thronged the president’s home seized by protesters the previous day, picnicking in the gardens and swimming in the pool.

Nuwan Bopege, a volunteer associated with the protest movement, told the Washington Post the protesters will occupy the homes of the two leaders until they formally resign.

Tens of thousands of people flooded the streets of Colombo this weekend to demand President Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s ouster over disastrous economic policies that have driven the country to collapse.

On Saturday, angry crowds stormed the presidential residence and office, and celebrated their victory by diving into the swimming pool and lounging on his bed. By nighttime Rajapaksa had conveyed his decision to resign on July 13 to the parliamentary speaker. He had moved out of his home a day ahead of the protests, and his whereabouts remain unknown.

Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe too offered to resign to quell growing unrest, but his offer did not placate irate protesters who set his home ablaze.

The announcements of the resignation offers marked a major win for the protesters but plunged the island nation into political turmoil over what happens next.

“This was a failed president and a failed government,” said Faiszer Musthapha, a member of an opposition party that previously allied with Rajapaksa.

He said the long-suffering people of the country had taken control. “It was the might of the people on show,” he said.

“It is a historic moment,” said Harini Amarasuriya, an opposition member of Parliament, “where a true citizen’s struggle ended the rule of an unpopular and untrustworthy government.”

At an all-party meeting Saturday night, lawmakers decided to form an interim government until elections can take place. Discussions are underway to appoint a prime minister before the resignation of the president on Wednesday.

“We can now move into a more acceptable long-term trajectory for the country and for the international community,” said Eran Wickremerathne, a leader of the main opposition party.

The United States was tracking developments in Sri Lanka closely, Secretary of State Antony Blinken told reporters in Thailand on Sunday, urging the country’s political leaders to quickly “identify and implement solutions” for long-term economic stability and address people’s discontent.

Blinken said the impact of the Russian invasion of Ukraine was being felt everywhere and “may have contributed” to the crisis in Sri Lanka. The war in Ukraine pushed up global energy and food prices making it impossible for the nearly bankrupt country to import what it needs, exacerbating its economic struggle.

“Sri Lanka would be in crisis even if you didn’t have a war in Ukraine, but it’s compounding everything,” Alan Keenan, an analyst at the International Crisis Group consultancy told the Post in April. “This is the Ukraine effect: a credit line for fuel you thought could last two months now lasts one. Even if you get a bailout, you’re buying less food, less fuel, less medicine.”

Even as the opposition tries to build consensus on next steps, the situation remains volatile as people’s patience has run out and with no quick fixes available.

In May, similar large-scale protests led to the resignation of Rajapaksa’s older brother Mahinda as prime minister and other family members. But the president hung on, appointing a former prime minister to head a new government.

The anger over continued economic distress spilled over again, this time in greater force. Recent weeks have been marked by severe fuel shortages, lengthy power cuts and skyrocketing food prices. The extraordinary circumstances forced authorities to shut down schools and offices and ask government workers to grow food in backyards.

The signs of acute distress are apparent everywhere – in the miles-long lines at gas stations, where it can take up to three days to reach the front, and the desperate attempts by asylum seekers to reach Australia by sea.

Experts say Sri Lanka is experiencing stagflation – a period marked by slow growth and high unemployment accompanied by rising prices. The current negative growth could touch minus 4-6 percent later this year, some forecasts suggest, worse than the Covid hit to the economy in 2020. The Russian invasion of Ukraine that has sent global fuel and food prices soaring has exacerbated the country’s woes.

Sri Lanka has been in bailout talks with international lenders, but continuing political instability threatens to jeopardize that process.

Manjuka Fernandopulle, a lawyer specializing in debt restructuring, said creditors would like to deal with a government that is “credible and legitimate” and can “deliver on the promised reform.”

Local media reported that the International Monetary Fund said it hopes for an early resolution so that talks may resume on a bailout package. Ganeshan Wignaraja, an economist at ODI, a U.K.-based global affairs think tank who has been involved in the IMF discussions described the economic situation as “hugely challenging.”

The first step forward for Sri Lanka is the IMF program, Wignaraja said, which will include “higher taxes, raising interest rates to stabilize inflation and cutting down on public subsidies like electricity and power.”

“Step two is economic reforms [such as] lowering barriers to foreign investors,” he said. “My biggest fear is this could be a lost decade and all the gain made in poverty reduction could be reversed.”

Aid groups say nearly a quarter of the country’s 22 million residents are in need of food assistance. Many have resorted to eating less or skipping meals altogether. Countries like India and Australia have sent humanitarian aid such as food and medicines.

Now with the imminent ouster of the president, many Sri Lankans are hopeful of things turning around.

Namal Ratnayake, 40, was part of the protesting crowd that marched toward the president’s office. The last few months had been devastating for the a wedding photographer, with income drying up and no fuel to get around for assignments.

“We had to oust these corrupt people who have brought us down to our knees,” Ratnayake said. “My demand is that we have honest and educated people appointed from the present parliament to take us out of this immediate mess.”

At the presidential residence, celebrations by the jubilant crowd continued. .

Visuals from local media showed a stream of visitors walking through an imposing stairway at the president’s home. Announcements were made to not steal or harm the property. Some collected trash and cleaned up debris.

In a large conference room, people enacted a discussion with the IMF while a young man played the Rajapaksa campaign song on the president’s piano to loud cheers.