News report

Sri Lankan PM says president’s powers will be curtailed

COLOMBO, Sri Lanka (AP) — Sri Lanka’s prime minister said Tuesday the constitution would be amended to curtail presidential powers and empower parliament as protesters continued to call on the president and his powerful family to resign over the country’s economic crisis.

Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa told parliament that the transfer of power would be one of the quick steps that could be taken to stabilize the country politically and help talks with the International Monetary Fund for an economic stimulus package.

“While seeking solutions to economic problems, it is important that we have political and social stability in the country,” Rajapaksa said, adding that returning to constitutional status with more powers in parliament would be the start of reforms.

President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, who is the prime minister’s brother, concentrated more power in the presidency when he was elected to the post in 2019.

Thousands of protesters occupied the entrance to the president’s office for an 11th day on Tuesday, holding him responsible for the economic crisis.

President Rajapaksa admitted on Monday that he had made mistakes such as delaying an IMF aid request and banning agrochemicals in a bid to convert Sri Lankan agriculture to all-organic agriculture, which led to the crisis.

However, the President and Prime Minister refused to step down, leading to a political stalemate. Opposition parties have rejected the president’s offer to join a unity government, but they are unable to hold a majority in parliament and form a new government.

In a cabinet reshuffle on Monday, the president named many new faces and left out four family members who held cabinet and non-cabinet ministries in what appeared to be an attempt to please protesters without giving up the grip of his family on power.

The Rajapaksa brothers are likely to retain the same grip on power even if the constitution is amended, since they hold both offices.

Sri Lanka is on the verge of bankruptcy, with almost $7 billion of its total external debt of $25 billion due to be repaid this year. A severe shortage of foreign exchange means that the country lacks money to buy imported goods.

People have endured months of shortages of essentials like food, cooking gas, fuel and medicine, queuing for hours to buy the very limited supplies available.

Last week the government announced it was suspending foreign loan repayments pending talks with the IMF. Finance Minister Ali Sabry and officials left on Sunday for talks with the IMF. The IMF and World Bank are holding annual meetings in Washington this week.

Sri Lanka has also turned to China and India for emergency loans to buy food and fuel.