Sri Lankan PM says president’s powers will be reduced

Sri Lankans shout anti-government slogans during an ongoing protest outside president’s office in Colombo, Sri Lanka, Monday, April 18, 2022. Sri Lanka’s president appointed 17 new Cabinet ministers on Monday as he and his powerful family seek to resolve a political crisis resulting from the country’s dire economic state. (AP Photo/Eranga Jayawardena)

COLOMBO, Sri Lanka (AP) — Sri Lanka’s prime minister said Tuesday the constitution will be changed to clip presidential powers and empower Parliament as protesters continued to call on the president and his powerful family to quit over the country’s economic crisis.

Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa told Parliament that the power transfer will be one of the quick steps that can be taken to politically stabilize the country and help talks with the International Monetary Fund for an economic recovery plan.

While looking for solutions to the economic problems, it is important that we have political and social stability in the country, Rajapaksa said, adding that reverting to a constitutional status with more powers to Parliament will be start to the reforms.

President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, who is the prime minister’s brother, concentrated more powers in the presidency on being elected to the office in 2019.

Thousands of protesters were occupying the entrance to the president’s office for a 11th day Tuesday, holding him responsible for the economic crisis.

President Rajapaksa on Monday admitted that he made mistakes like delaying going to the IMF for help and banning agrochemicals with the aim of converting Sri Lanka’s agriculture to fully organic, leading to the crisis.

However, both the president and prime minister have refused to step down, resulting in a political impasse. 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 Monday, the president appointed many new faces and left out four family members who held Cabinet and non-Cabinet ministries in what seemed an attempt to please the protesters without giving up his family’s grip on power.

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

Sri Lanka is on the brink of bankruptcy, with nearly $7 billion of its total $25 billion in foreign debt due for repayment this year. A severe shortage of foreign exchange means the country lacks money to buy imported goods.

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

Last week, the government said it was suspending repayment of foreign loans pending talks with the IMF. Finance Minister Ali Sabry and officials left for talks with the IMF on Sunday. 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.