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Sri Lanka government wins Parliament vote amid protests; police tear gas student protesters outside parliament

Sri Lanka’s beleaguered government won a key vote in Parliament on Thursday as a ruling coalition-backed candidate was elected deputy speaker, despite growing public pressure on the government amid the worst economic crisis in decades.

The vote was seen as crucial to demonstrate that the government still has majority support in the 225-member Parliament after 40 governing coalition lawmakers said last month they would no longer vote according to coalition instructions. It was feared that their move would significantly weaken the government and that it might also lose a majority.

Ranjith Siyambalapitiya, who was backed by the ruling coalition led by President Gotabhaya Rajapaksa, defeated opposition candidate Imithiaz Bakeer Markar. Siyambalapitiya received 148 votes and Marker got 65 votes.

Sri Lankan motorists queue up to buy fuel outside a fuel station in Colombo, Sri Lanka, Thursday, May 5, 2022. Sri Lanka’s economy is in dire straits with its usable foreign reserves down to less than $50 million, the country’s finance minister said. (AP Photo/Eranga Jayawardena)

Siyambalapitiya previously held the post of deputy speaker before resigning last month when his Sri Lanka Freedom Party defected from the government. But his party has agreed to work with the government to try to resolve the economic situation.

The comfortable victory for Siyambalapitiya comes as the Rajapaksa government faces nationwide protests over its failure to resolve the country’s economic woes.

Meanwhile, Police fired tear gas on students attempting to storm Sri Lanka’s parliament on Thursday (Mau 5) as the protesters demanded the resignation of President Gotabaya Rajapaksa over the country’s worst-ever economic crisis.

Protesters led by the Inter University Students’ Federation were about to pull down the yellow-painted iron barricades on the main drive leading to the legislature when riot police unleashed a barrage of tear gas.

The students had marched from a nearby university and closed in on the parliament building located on a man-made lake island when police moved in.

Even as the crowds dispersed, police kept firing tear gas canisters that hit shops in the nearby Diyatha Uyana park, witnesses said.

Police had earlier set up barricades around the sprawling parliament complex where a vacancy for the deputy speaker was being filled unopposed.

For several months, Sri Lankans have endured long lines to buy fuel, cooking gas, food and medicine, most of which come from abroad. Shortages of hard currency have also hindered imports of raw materials for manufacturing and worsened inflation, which surged to 18.7% in March.

As oil prices soar during the Russia-Ukraine conflict, the island nation’s fuel stocks are running out. Authorities have announced countrywide power cuts extending up to 7 1/2 hours a day because they can’t supply enough fuel to power generating stations.

Sri Lanka is on the brink of bankruptcy and has suspended payments on its foreign loans. Its economic miseries have brought on a political crisis, with the government facing protests and a no-confidence motion in Parliament.

The opposition United People’s Force handed over the motion to Parliament on Tuesday, saying the government had failed in its constitutional duty to provide decent living standards.

Officials say the country’s foreign reserves have plummeted to a record low of less than $50 million. The country has been holding talks with the International Monetary Fund about possible rescue programs, including a rapid financing instrument needed to urgently resolve shortages of essential goods.

The country is due to repay $7 billion this year of the $25 billion in foreign loans it is scheduled to pay by 2026.

Protests have spread demanding the resignations of Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa, who heads an influential clan that has held power for most of the past two decades, and his younger brother, President Gotabaya Rajapaksa.

An occupation of the entrance to the president’s office by protesters demanding the Rajapaksas resign was in its 27th day on Thursday.

So far, the Rajapaksa brothers have resisted calls to resign, though three other Rajapaksas who are lawmakers stepped down from their Cabinet posts in mid-April. ( with inputs from AP & AFP)

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