Sri Lanka’s Rajapaksa to finish term despite protests: ‘I can’t go as failed president’
- Despite months of protests calling for him to step down, Gotabaya Rajapaksa says he was given five-year mandate so will finish the remaining two years – but will not stand again
- Protesters blame Rajapaksa family for decisions that led to severe shortages of everything from fuel to medicine, forcing historic debt default
President Gotabaya Rajapaksa vowed to finish the remaining two years of his term in office despite months long street protests calling for his ouster, but will not stand for re-election as he focuses on fixing a financial mess that tipped Sri Lanka into its worst-ever economic crisis.
“I can’t go as a failed president,” Rajapaksa said on Monday in a wide-ranging interview at his official residence in Colombo, his first with a foreign media organisation since the crisis unfolded.
“I have been given a mandate for five years. I will not contest again.”
The defiance comes in the face of slogans of “Gota Go Home,” with protesters blaming Rajapaksa and his family for decisions that led to severe shortages of everything from fuel to medicine, stoking inflation to 40 per cent and forcing a historic debt default.
Thousands of demonstrators have camped outside the president’s seaside office since mid-March, forcing him to retreat to his barricaded official residence about one kilometre away.
The economic tailspin spiralled into political turmoil with the resignation of the president’s brother, Mahinda Rajapaksa, as the nation’s prime minister, after clashes between government supporters and the protesters turned bloody in May.
Gotabaya Rajapaksa and his new Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe are now seeking about US$4 billion in aid this year from the International Monetary Fund and countries including India and China.
Sri Lanka’s rupee has lost about 82 per cent in the past year and the central bank on Monday flagged the possibility of a further correction. The nation’s debt is trading in deep-distressed territory.
The president said he wanted to replicate his previous successful stints serving the nation. Gotabaya Rajapaksa oversaw the urban development authority and was Sri Lanka’s defence secretary under then-President Mahinda Rajapaksa, when they crushed a 30-year civil war in 2009.
The president reiterated his controversial goal to push through “natural agriculture”, a short-lived move to ban chemical fertilisers that caused crop output to slump.
Gotabaya Rajapaksa was also sceptical about the success of a planned amendment to the constitution, which seeks to contain the executive presidency.
Cabinet is due to approve the proposals as early as Monday, which would rollback wide-ranging powers Rajapaksa pushed through parliament soon after he was elected president in 2019.
A draft of the so-called 21st amendment gives some powers back to the parliament and restores independence to commissions in key decision making.
Either the presidency should be abolished or the parliament is kept out of governing, Gotabaya Rajapaksa said.
“You can’t have a mixed system,” he said. “I experienced this and now know. People may blame me when I tell this but that’s the truth.”
Meanwhile, a Sri Lankan cabinet minister was convicted on Monday of extorting money from a businessman over a land deal.
Prasanna Ranatunga, whose brother Arjuna captained the country’s cricket World Cup winning team, was given a two-year suspended prison sentence and fined 25 million Sri Lankan rupees (US$68,500).
He is currently the urban development minister and was previously responsible for tourism, before a brief spell as public security minister.
Sri Lanka ranks 102nd out of 180 countries in Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index for 2021, but it is extremely rare for senior Sri Lankan politicians to face accountability for corruption allegations.
Additional reporting by Agence France-Presse