COLOMBO: President Gotabaya Rajapaksa vowed to finish the remaining two years in his term despite months-long 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 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% and forcing a historic debt default.
"This is unlikely to placate protesters," said Patrick Curran, an economist.
"With elections more than two years away, Rajapaksa's decision to see his term through will contribute to heightened political uncertainty and could hamper reform efforts." Gotabaya was also sceptical about the success of a planned amendment to the constitution, which seeks to contain the executive presidency.
The cabinet is due to approve the proposals as early as Monday, which would rollback wide-ranging powers Gotabaya pushed through parliament in 2019.
A draft of the so-called 21st amendment gives some powers back to the parliament and restores independence to commissions in key decisionmaking.
Either the presidency should be abolished or the parliament is kept out of governing, Gotabaya said. "You can't have a mixed system," he 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.”
“We waited too long (to seek help from the International Monetary Fund).
If we had gone at least six months or a year earlier, it would not have come to this state.”
“We have appointed financial and legal advisers (for a debt restructure) but that is for the capital markets. Bilaterals we have to go to individually; our major loans are from China, Japan, India and the Paris Club.”
“I have requested help from India and China. I personally spoke to the leaders and wrote to them. Then I have spoken to Middle Eastern leaders personally like Qatar, UAE especially, and want to speak to Saudi and Oman to get help for long term contracts for supply of crude oil.”
“The subsidy system will have to go. We cannot cut down on public servants or the military, we can decrease by cutting down on recruitment.”
“It is political as a president. You know, I am not a politician. Fortunately or unfortunately people when they are in politics for so long you can have so much baggage, you have lot of friends. Lot of people who want help are your supporters. When you go against this -- I tried to go against this -- you don’t get their help.”
“What is this executive (powers) of the president? My personal opinion is that if you have a presidency he must have full powers. Otherwise abolish executive presidency and go for full Westminster-style parliament.”