Sri Lanka opposition meets to name new government after dramatic protests

Protesters will not leave the president's residence until a new government has been formed, as Vincent McAviney reports

Sri Lanka's opposition parties have been meeting on Sunday to agree on a new government after both the president and prime minister resigned on a day of dramatic protests.

Demonstrators, angry about food and fuel shortages, stormed the official residences, setting one of them on fire.

Protesters said they'll remain there until a new government is formed.

The president's whereabouts are unknown, but a statement from his office said Gotabaya Rajapaksa ordered the immediate distribution of a cooking gas consignment to the public, suggesting that he was still at work.

Soldiers were deployed around the city and the chief of defence staff, Shavendra Silva, called for public support to maintain law and order.

But troops simply watched from afar as crowds of people splashed in the garden pool of Rajapaksa’s sprawling residence, lounged on beds and took selfies to capture the moment.

Police fired tear gas at protesters ahead of the storming of the president's residence

Occupants of the prime minister’s official residence cooked in an outdoor kitchen, played carrom – a popular tabletop game – and slept on sofas.

Ranjith Madduma Bandara, a top official in the main opposition United People's Force, said that separate discussions were held with other parties and lawmakers who broke away from Rajapaksa's ruling coalition and more meetings were planned.

He did not say when an agreement might be reached, even though it was expected to be finalised on Sunday.

Another opposition lawmaker, M. A. Sumanthiran, said earlier that all opposition parties combined could easily muster the 113 members needed to show a majority in Parliament, at which point they will request Rajapaksa to install the new government and then resign.

Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe said he will leave office once a new government is in place, and hours later the speaker of Parliament said Rajapaksa would step down Wednesday.

Pressure on both men had grown as the economic meltdown set off acute shortages of essential items, leaving people struggling to obtain food, fuel and other necessities.

Protesters say they will stay until a new government is formed. Credit: AP

If both president and prime minister resign, Speaker Mahinda Yapa Abeywardena will take over as temporary president, according to the constitution.

Rajapaksa appointed Wickremesinghe as prime minister in May in an effort to solve the shortages and start economic recovery.

Wickremesinghe had been part of crucial talks with the International Monetary Fund for a bailout program and with the World Food Program to prepare for a predicted food crisis.

The government must submit a plan on debt sustainability to the IMF in August before reaching an agreement.

Analysts say it is doubtful any new leader could do more than Wickremesinghe.

His government’s efforts showed promise, with much-needed fertiliser being distributed to farmers for next season’s cultivation and cooking gas orders arriving in the country on Sunday.

Some protesters jumped into the swimming pool at the president's residence. Credit: AP

“This kind of unrest could create confusion among international organisations like the IMF and the World Bank,” political analyst Ranga Kalansooriya said, adding that a new administration should agree on a common program for economic recovery.

He said while Wickremesinghe was working in the right direction, his administration was not implementing a long-term plan to go with its focus on solving day-to-day problems.

It is unlikely that an all-party government will agree on IMF-backed economic reforms without some parties losing their political support.

Even though both Wickremesinghe and Abeywardena, the parliament speaker, said in their speeches that they had spoken with the president, they did not say anything about his whereabouts.

Protesters also broke into the prime minister’s private residence and set it on fire during the melee on Saturday.

A party official, Ruwan Wijewardena, said Wickremesinghe was inside when the protesters gathered but security officers removed him to a different location.

walk around and spend time at the ongoing protest site a day after storming into president's office. Credit: AP

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said that Washington was tracking the developments in Sri Lanka and urged Parliament to work quickly to implement solutions and address the people's discontent.

Sri Lanka is relying on aid from India and other nations as leaders try to negotiate a bailout with the IMF.

Wickremesinghe said recently that negotiations with the IMF were complex because Sri Lanka was now a bankrupt state.

Sri Lanka announced in April that it was suspending repayment of foreign loans due to a foreign currency shortage. Its total foreign debt amounts to $51 billion, of which it must repay $28 billion by the end of 2027.

Months of demonstrations have all but dismantled the Rajapaksa political dynasty, which has ruled Sri Lanka for most of the past two decades but is accused by protesters of mismanagement and corruption.

The president’s older brother resigned as prime minister in May after violent protests saw him seek safety at a naval base. He later moved into a house in Colombo.