COLOMBO (BLOOMBERG) – President Gotabaya Rajapaksa vowed to finish the remaining two years in his term despite monthslong street protests calling for his ouster, but won’t stand for re-election as he focuses on fixing a financial mess that tipped Sri Lanka into its worst-ever economic crisis.
“I can’t go as a failed president,” Rajapaksa said Monday (June 6) in a wide-ranging interview 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 of “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 per cent and forcing a historic 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 spiraled into political turmoil with the resignation of the president’s old 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 US$4 billion (S$5.5 billion) in aid this year from the International Monetary Fund and countries including India and China.
Sri Lanka’s rupee has lost about 82 per cent 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 wanted 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.
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 is due to approve the proposals as early as Monday, which would rollback wide-ranging powers Gotabaya Rajapaksa pushed through parliament shortly after he was elected president in 2019.