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Sri Lanka Must Accept ‘Extreme Austerity,’ Opposition Chief Says

Sri Lanka Must Accept ‘Extreme Austerity,’ Opposition Chief Says
Demonstrators in Colombo, Sri Lanka, on Monday, April 18, 2022. Sri Lanka has been thrust into uncertainty as protesters angered by sky-high inflation and lengthy power cuts called for the resignation of President Gotabaya Rajapaksa and his brother, Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa.

Sri Lanka’s opposition leader warned the country is facing a period of “extreme austerity” as he pushes to build support in parliament to change the constitution and remove the Rajapaksa family from power. 

“We all have to swallow a bitter pill, or even several pills, because the consequences of irrationality throughout the past years have come home to roost,” Sajith Premadasa, leader of the main opposition Samagi Jana Balawegaya party, said in an interview with Bloomberg Television. “Now we have to face the music. Economic restructuring and everything else will have costs and benefits.”

“It’s going to be a time of extreme austerity,” he added in the interview with Bloomberg Television’s Yvonne Man and Haslinda Amin. “And people of Sri Lanka must comprehend this reality. But if we take these bold steps, we can overcome all the challenges, all the obstacles that we face.”

President Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s government said last week it would halt foreign debt service to preserve cash for food and fuel imports, a move that puts it on course for a series of defaults. That has led rating companies to slash Sri Lanka further into junk, with Moody’s Investors Service on Monday the latest to downgrade the country’s credit rating.

Sri Lanka is seeking up to $4 billion this year to help it import essentials and pay creditors amid a downward economic spiral of dwindling foreign reserves and Asia’s fastest inflation. The crisis has triggered political unrest, with the president losing the support of his own coalition partners and facing growing street protests calling for his resignation.

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Premadasa said the opposition would push forward with no-confidence and impeachment motions, even though he said they would be an “uphill battle” to pass in a parliament dominated by Rajapaksa’s allies. He also called to abolish a constitutional amendment, passed shortly after Rajapaksa took power in late 2019, that gave the president sweeping powers — including to appoint and fire government officials and judges.

In an apparent shift on Monday, Rajapaksa said he’s open to discussing constitutional changes with the opposition and acknowledged the government should’ve sought help earlier from the International Monetary Fund. Sri Lankan officials are in Washington this week to discuss terms for emergency assistance from the IMF, which has sought a concrete plan for the country to improve its fiscal health.

Premadasa, whose father served as president for four years until he was killed by a suicide bomber in 1993, lost the 2019 election to Rajapaksa by about 10 percentage points. BM

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