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Sri Lankan President Gotabaya Rajapaksa. Picture: BLOOMBERG.
Sri Lankan President Gotabaya Rajapaksa. Picture: BLOOMBERG.

President Gotabaya Rajapaksa has vowed to finish the remaining two years in his term despite months-long street protests calling for his ouster. But he will not stand for re-election as he focuses on fixing a financial mess that tipped Sri Lanka into its worst economic crisis yet.

“I can’t go as a failed president,” Rajapaksa said on Monday in an interview with Bloomberg 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 like “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% and forcing a 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 a kilometre away.

The economic tailspin spiralled into political turmoil with the resignation of the president’s older 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 $4bn in aid in 2022 from the IMF and countries including India and China. Sri Lanka’s rupee has lost about 82% of its value over 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 wants 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. 

Constitutional amendment

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 was due to approve the proposals as early as Monday, which would roll back the wide-ranging powers Gotabaya Rajapaksa pushed through parliament shortly after he was elected president in 2019.

A draft of the so-called 21st amendment gives some powers back to parliament and restores independence to commissions in key decision-making.

Either the presidency should be abolished or 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.”

Bloomberg News. For more articles like this please visit Bloomberg.com.

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