Sri Lankan President’s Silence Over Resignation Fuels Political Anxiety

Sri Lankan politics were in turmoil as opposition parties worked to form an interim government, despite the country’s president not personally confirming that he would step down to make way for new leadership.

Sri Lanka’s parliamentary speaker said over the weekend that President

Gotabaya Rajapaksa

had agreed to resign on Wednesday. Prime Minister

Ranil Wickremesinghe,

who has publicly committed to resigning, said the president had informed him that he will be stepping down as previously announced, the prime minister’s office said on Monday morning.

The president’s office, in an apparent response to the prime minister’s statement, said that the president would only release messages through the parliament’s speaker, Mahinda Yapa Abeywardena, a Rajapaksa ally.

The political tumult comes after months of demonstrations over the government’s mishandling of the economy came to a head on Saturday as thousands of protesters in the capital Colombo surged past police lines to storm and occupy the president’s residence and officeas well as the prime minister’s residence, where they said they would remain until the two leaders formally resigned.

In recent years, Sri Lanka accumulated debt for infrastructure projectswhile sweeping tax cuts also slashed government revenue. Then came the pandemic, which decimated foreign-currency earnings. This year, with foreign reserves dwindling to near zero, the country struggled to secure vital imports, such as fuel and medicines, and defaulted in May.

The president’s whereabouts is unknown, but a statement from his office said he ordered the swift distribution of a cooking-gas shipment to the public on Sunday, a sign he remained at work. Mr. Rajapaksa last tweeted on Friday to express condolences over the death of former Japanese Prime Minister

Shinzo Abe,

and his last public meeting was with Canada’s high commissioner the day before.

Sri Lanka’s opposition parties are negotiating over the formation of an interim government that will fill the breach once Messrs. Rajapaksa and Wickremesinghe formally step down. At a meeting on Saturday, party leaders decided that the speaker would take the role of acting president before parliament votes for a new president. The new president will then appoint a prime minister, and fresh elections will be held at a date yet to be decided.

Sajith Premadasa,

one likely contender for president as the leader of the main opposition, said his Samagi Jana Balawegaya party was ready to lead and that any parliamentarians seeking to scuttle the formation of a new government would be betraying the country.

Protesters continued to occupy the president’s palace in Sri Lanka, enjoying the compound’s pool and working out in the gym. Sri Lanka’s parliamentary speaker said President Gotabaya Rajapaksa intends to step down after his residence was stormed on Saturday. Photo: Chamila Karunarathne/ EPA-EFE via Shutterstock

“The mandate of the president, prime minister, and SLPP government is over now,” Mr. Premadasa said in a video address, referring to Mr. Rajapaksa’s ruling party, the Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna. “We as opposition are ready to lead, to stabilize the country and rebuild the economy.”

The radio silence from the president, and his declared intention to resign on Wednesday rather than immediately, has fueled political uncertainty and anxiety among the protesting public, who have seen Mr. Rajapaksa and his powerful family hold a firm grip over Sri Lankan politics for much of the past two decades. Defense officials debunked online rumors of large numbers of troops heading to protest sites on Sunday night.

Soldiers were visible around the capital on Monday, but merely looked on from a distance as crowds continued to mill around Mr. Rajapaksa’s residence, cooling off in the swimming pool, watching television and lounging on chairs and beds.

Political analysts said Mr. Rajapaksa’s stalling could be designed to buy time in a rear guard attempt to preserve as much power for him and his party as the new all-party government is formed. But the overwhelming sense of public rejection and anger meant he was merely delaying the inevitable, said

Nishan de Mel,

executive director of Verité Research, a Colombo-based think tank.

“The longer this period lasts, the more unstable it becomes, so it’s important that this particular period is ended quickly,” Mr. de Mel said.

Write to Philip Wen at philip.wen@wsj.com

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