The leader of Sri Lanka’s biggest opposition party has urged the IMF to provide support to ease the country’s humanitarian crisis and cushion the blow of reforms needed to save its ruined economy.
Sajith Premadasa, who is one of the main contenders as MPs prepare to vote for the country’s next president, called for a general election to be organised as soon as possible “if the country is to be saved”. The next general election is set to take place in 2025. Premadasa also accused Ranil Wickremesinghe, a rival who is favoured to replace the ousted president Gotabaya Rajapaksa, of “lacking legitimacy”.
The extraordinary vote by MPs, scheduled for Wednesday, will cap a months-long revolt against the powerful Rajapaksa clan, which culminated in the ransacking of the presidential office and private residence, and Rajapaksa’s night-time escape by plane to the Maldives and then Singapore.
“The IMF and all international financial institutions have to look at Sri Lanka in a more humane manner,” Premadasa, whose party commands less than a quarter of MPs in the 225-strong parliament, told the Financial Times in an interview at his Colombo headquarters, adding that the situation had unfolded into a “humanitarian crisis”.
“Just because an elected dictatorship decided on this course of action, the world should not punish the 22mn people living in our country,” he said.
Whoever becomes the next leader will face the worst economic and political crisis in Sri Lanka’s post-independence history, and will have to negotiate a bailout package with the IMF while restructuring more than $50bn in external debt owed to international creditors.
Premadasa, the British-educated son of a former president, said the IMF needed to “ensure there were some sort of shock-absorption methodologies through bridge financing whereby the restructuring processes had minimal impact on the people and their lives”.
Hapless economic policies of the Rajapaksas, such as banning imports of fertiliser, compounded by a drop in tourism revenue owing to the pandemic, have caused a massive jump in food prices, devaluation of the Sri Lanka rupee and acute shortages of fuel.
Until recently praised as one of the most affluent in the region and with a growing middle class, 3mn people in Sri Lanka now survive on humanitarian aid and most families are skipping meals.
“The country has reached a precipice. We’re going through economic Armageddon. The Rajapaksa rule has been a cataclysmic disaster,” said Premadasa.
He also acknowledged that, “there’s going to be a lot of suffering, restructuring, reforms, drastic changes that will result in negative externalities, social costs”.
Premadasa entered parliament more than 20 years ago and has served as deputy health minister, and minister of housing construction and cultural affairs in past administrations. Some observers see his lack of experience in senior cabinet positions as a handicap in this race.
He is up against acting president Wickremesinghe who took over as prime minister for the sixth time in May as protests mounted and Sri Lanka slid into economic abyss. The 73-year-old veteran is seen as a steady hand with experience in dealing with the IMF over bailouts in the past.
Premadasa’s allegations of the lack of popular mandate for his rival stem from the fact that Wickremesinghe lost in an election in his Colombo district in 2020 and his party won no seats. He entered the parliament through the national list allotted to his party based on the total nationwide vote.
Thanks to his historical proximity to the Rajapaksas he can count on the support of many MPs in the ruling party, analysts say. On Saturday, he pledged a relief programme to provide fuel, gas and essential food items.
But Wickremesinghe is viewed with suspicion over his ties to the ruling elite among the protesters who still occupy a large section of Colombo’s central district. They have burnt down Wickremesinghe’s residence and since the ousting of the president have turned their anger squarely on his temporary replacement, chanting “Ranil go home”.
Underscoring the lack of dialogue among Sri Lanka’s political elites at a time of national crisis, Premadasa said the two had not spoken since Rajapaksa’s escape.
“It’s a deadlock, gridlock, whatever word you may use. We have not had a discussion on the future course of the country — and he’s the acting president right now.”
Additional reporting by Mahendra Ratnaweera in Colombo