(Bloomberg) — Sri Lankan President Gotabaya Rajapaksa signaled to a group of lawmakers just before they joined his cabinet that he wouldn’t be stepping down soon, a move that falls short of demands from protesters who want his immediate ouster.
The president had agreed to whittling down his powers when he met with Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe and a few others, said Justice Minister Wijedasa Rajapakshe who attended the meeting last month.
“After this term he won’t continue,” Justice Minister Wijedasa Rajapakshe told Bloomberg News in an interview at his office in Colombo. The government “cannot answer whether we will stay the full term, that is uncertain,” he added.
The next presidential election isn’t until November 2023. Wijedasa Rajapakshe said elections can be held when Sri Lanka’s economic position was stabilized and if its citizens wanted this to happen.
Gotabaya Rajapaksa agreed to a so-called 21st amendment to the constitution that aimed to return to an earlier version, said Wijedasa Rajapakshe. It will give some powers back to the parliament and restores independence to commissions in key decision making.
The plan, put forward by a newly-appointed multi-party government, is expected to get parliament approval in four to six weeks, said Wijedasa Rajapakshe, who is not related to the president.
The deliberations come as thousands of protesters have camped outside Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s barricaded office and official residence, calling for his ouster. Sri Lanka is undergoing the worst economic crisis in its independent history, with shortages of everything from fuel to medicine and inflation at nearly 40%.
Despite this, Wijedasa Rajapakshe said he had the “confidence” the amendments will get passed, adding that it was being drafted in a way that would also avoid seeking a referendum — a process that would take time. It would be up to the Supreme Court to determine if a referendum was needed to ratify certain changes in the constitution.
Wijedasa Rajapakshe said a more complete overhaul of the constitution could be done once economic stability returns to Sri Lanka. For now, the current administration and its president must continue or else the country would be dragged into a deeper crisis if there’s no one left to negotiate with the International Monetary Fund for a much-needed bailout, he said.
“We can all go. But then who will govern the country?” Wijedasa Rajapakshe said. “The protesters have no answer for that.”