COLOMBO: Beleaguered Sri Lankan president Gotabaya Rajapaksa revoked the four day old public emergency late on April 5, following the defection of 42 MPs from the governing coalition which had reduced its majority in parliament to two.

Late on April 5 the government which needs at least 113 MPs in the House of 225 had only 114, a wafer thin majority which it could lose at any time. After the defections the “Independent group” in parliament has swelled to 42. The opposition comprises 68 MPs.

The MPs who broke away from the governing coalition led by the Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP) were responding to the popular demand that the president quit office, owning responsibility for the current economic crisis marked by skyrocketing prices and shortages of food, fuel and foreign exchange. Power cuts of 5 to 13 hours a day have also stretched the people’s patience.

Groups of people from various economic classes and age groups continued to gather at public places across the island to shout slogans and hold placards demanding the president’s resignation and the Rajapaksas’ exit from government. Two Rajapaksa brothers and two of their sons are ministers, while sibling Gotabaya Rajapaksa is the executive president with humongous near-authoritarian powers.

On April 5 the breakaway MPs from the SLPP and its allies like the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) and the Ceylon Workers’ Congress told the parliament that they would henceforth sit separately as “Independent groups.”

A day earlier Rajapaksa had said that he would appoint anyone prime minister who had the support of at least 113 MPs, the minimum needed to form government. The opposition parties rejected the President’s offer.

The reason is that the President is all powerful under the Sri Lankan executive presidential system, especially after the present government enacted the 20th Amendment to the constitution enhancing the powers of the President to the detriment of the Prime Minister, the cabinet and parliament, in July last year.

With the 20th Amendment in place, the President can always overrule the Prime Minister no matter how many MPs the latter has behind them. And a strongman like Gotabaya Rajapaksa would certainly not allow a Prime Minister from the opposition ranks to function independently and effectively.

This is why Sajith Premadasa, leader of the Samagi Jana Balawegaya, the principal opposition party, demanded abolition of the executive presidency. To manage the interim period, he requested the speaker to seek the president’s resignation. But the speaker said that the constitution has no provision for making such a request. He told the MPs to settle the issue politically.

The first government group to announce its exit was the 11-party outfit led by former ministers Wimal Weerawansa and Udaya Gammanpila. 17 MPs from this group decided to function as an independent group. Then SLFP leader Maithripala Sirisena said that the 16 MPs of his party had decided to function as an independent group.

Seeing the writing on the wall, SLPP MP and former minister Anura Priyadharshana Yapa announced that 12 SLPP MPs had also decided to function independently. The Tamil Progressive Alliance has said that it will support the government if it repeals the 20th amendment enacted last year.

Meanwhile, newly appointed finance minister Ali Sabry tendered his resignation to the president saying that the ministry should be in the hands of an expert in the field of economics and finance given the complexity of the situation.

Sabry is a lawyer. He even offered to resign from his seat in parliament to enable the SLPP to nominate a financial expert in his place and give them the finance portfolio.

Finance secretary A.R Attygalle also quit. The central governor Ajith Nivard Cabraal had already resigned and P. Nandalal Weerasinghe, the deputy governor had taken his place. Last weekend, two state ministers had also quit their posts.

What President Gotabaya Rajapaksa will do now, with so many of his crew jumping ship, is the million dollar question. Will he resign seeing the writing on the wall or hang on heedless of his growing unpopularity?

Most political observers who know his mindset expect him to stay put and fight, touting highway minister Johnston Fernando’s argument that Rajapaksa still enjoys the mandate given by 6.9 million voters in the 2019 presidential election.

Rajapaksa might go along with United National Party leader Ranil Wickremesinghe’s suggestion that MPs should set aside politics and jointly evolve a solution to the economic problem at the root of the crisis.

Wickremesinghe told parliament on Tuesday that he had talked to the IMF, the World Bank and other international institutions and was told that they would help Sri Lanka tide over the current shortages. Sri Lanka could also seek help from a consortium of friendly countries such as India, China, Japan, the USA and South Korea, Wickremesinghe said. In fact, all these countries have told the President that they were ready to help.

Wickremesinghe added that merely changing the government or the president would not solve the economic problem, and that the parliament should collectively evolve a national solution. The former prime minister had said earlier that he would not mind taking up the presidency if Gotabaya Rajapaksa resigned and parliament elected him to take his place temporarily.

Namal Rajapaksa, the son of Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa and the sports minister until his recent resignation, has said that the demonstrators only want an individual to go, and are giving no thought whatsoever to solving the economic problem collectively through an all-party government as the president had suggested.

There is another school of thought which believes that in desperation, Gotabaya Rajapaksa, an ex-army officer, might hand over power to the army led by General Shavendra Silva. But Silva met the defence attaches of the various embassies in Colombo on Monday and apprised them of the army’s role, which he said is to aid civil power as and when it is called upon to do so.

“The armed forces of Sri Lanka would always comply with the Constitution and the Army is no exception,” Gen Silva said. “The Army as a professional outfit is always prepared to provide security and protection to the State as necessary.”

Still another school of thought believes that the demonstrations will cease once the diesel shortage ends and power generation resumes, with fuel aid from India and perhaps China too. Till then, Gotabaya Rajapaksa would hang on. And once shortages end, however temporarily, the Rajapaksa clan that had left the government will reenter it to reestablish its political dominance over Sri Lanka.

Votaries of this last line of thought add that Sri Lankans are not capable of sustaining movements over a long period of time. They tend to wait for elections to make their point, and the next presidential election is not slated until 2024. And the other reason given is the lack of unity in the opposition parties. The opposition lacks a single tall leader to unite it and give it leadership.

Post-Election Sri Lanka: Inter-Communal Relations in Gotabaya Rajapaksa's  Presidency | Middle East Institute