Sri Lankan president loses parliament majority as protests mount

COLOMBO: Sri Lanka’s president lost his parliamentary majority on Tuesday as former allies urged his resignation, following days of street protests over the island nation’s crippling economic crisis.

Severe shortages of food, fuel and other essentials — along with record inflation and crippling power cuts — have inflicted widespread misery in the country’s most painful downturn since independence from Britain in 1948.

President Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s once-powerful ruling coalition is in turmoil after a string of defections, capped on Tuesday by the new finance minister’s resignation just one day after taking office.

Public anger is at a fever pitch, with crowds attempting to storm the homes of several government figures since the weekend and large demonstrations elsewhere. “If we don’t act now, there will be a river of blood in the country,” said Wijeyadasa Rajapakshe, a newly independent lawmaker who broke ranks with the president’s party and joined calls for the leader to step down.

“We have to forget party politics and ensure an interim government.” Tuesday’s parliamentary session was the first since dozens of MPs withdrew their support for Rajapaksa’s government, including 16 lawmakers from the president’s own Sri Lanka Podujana Party (SLPP).

The government is now five short of a majority in the 225-member house, but there has been no clear signal that legislators will attempt a no-confidence motion that would compel it to resign.

Opposition parties have already rebuffed Rajapaksa’s call to join a unity administration helmed by him and his elder brother, Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa. Their government imposed a state of emergency last week in an effort to quell rising street protests, but the ordinance is set to expire next week unless ratified by parliament.

Rejecting calls for a vote on the emergency decree, the government cut short Tuesday’s parliamentary session more than two hours before its scheduled finish. Nimal Lanza, a former minister who has also abandoned Rajapaksa’s administration, conceded that the ruling party no longer had a mandate to govern and threw his support behind the crowds calling for the president’s resignation.

“I beg and appeal to you to take the side of the protesters,” he told parliament, addressing the prime minister, who attended the session but remained silent. Every member of Sri Lanka’s cabinet except the president and prime minister resigned late Sunday.

Former justice minister Ali Sabry was appointed to helm the finance ministry on Monday, replacing the president’s brother Basil Rajapaksa, but abruptly resigned after just one day in office.

“Whilst I regret the inconvenience caused, I believe I have always acted in the best interests of the country,” Sabry said in a statement. The ministry’s top civil servant also resigned Tuesday, a day after the central bank governor quit. Boisterous demonstrations have spread across the country of 22 million despite the emergency laws allowing troops to detain participants and a weekend curfew that lapsed on Monday morning.

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