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Sri Lanka: Wickremesinghe declares emergency ahead of the key election to pick a president

Demonstrators take part in a celebration as Sri Lanka's protest movement reached its 100th day at the Galle face protest area near Presidential secretariat in Colombo on July 17 (AFP)

Wickremesinghe move to impose emergency ahead of the crucial elections scheduled to be held on 20 July, gave him absolute power to pick a new president. Wickremesinghe has urged all political parties to set aside their differences and form an all-party government. 

Wickremesinghe move was slammed by the Opposition in Sri Lanka, who dubbed his decision as "undemocratic draconian act".

Gotabaya Rajapaksa fled to the Maldives and then to Singapore from where he resigned in the face of public revolt against his government's mishandling of the country's economy, imposed the emergency as protests demanding his resignation continued in most parts of the country.

In a government gazette dated 17 July, Wickremesinghe said that he was of the opinion enforcing public emergency was required in Sri Lanka in the interests of public security, the protection of public order and the maintenance of supplies and services essential to the life of the community.

The president is empowered to impose emergency regulations in part 2 of the public security ordinance which says "(a) if the president is of the opinion that the police are inadequate to deal with a situation he may gazette an order calling out the armed forces to maintain public order".

This means that security forces gain the power to search, arrest, seize and remove weapons and explosives, and enter and search premises or persons.

Hours later, Wickremesinghe's office issued a special statement in which he called upon the political parties to put aside their differences and not allow the country to suffer over differences over an individual.

"He urged them (political parties) to come together and form an All-Party Government which would allow the country to recover from the economic crisis," according to the statement issued by his office.

In the statement, 73-year-old Wickremesinghe said that when he took over as the Prime Minister on May 13, the economy had collapsed.

Wickremesinghe, who is one the contenders for the post of President, said July would be a difficult period for the supply of fuel. However, diesel stocks have been secured and are being distributed while from July 21 petrol will also be distributed.

He also explained that relief was being provided to the citizens who are struggling with the economic crisis. The loans taken by paddy farmers who have planted fields less than 2 acres have been cancelled. While due to the drop in the world oil prices, the fuel prices in the country have also been reduced, he said.

Wickremesinghe also highlighted the steps taken so far and said that negotiations with the International Monetary Fund (IMF) were nearing conclusion, and discussions for assistance with foreign countries were also progressing.

Opposition leaders slammed Wickremesinghe's move to impose an emergency.

"Imposition of Emergency is an undemocratic draconian act. Peace loving citizens of our motherland have the sacred privilege to exercise their fundamental rights in a democratic society. Long live democracy," Leader of the Opposition and Samagi Jana Balawegaya (SJB) party leader Sajith Premadasa tweeted.

Opposition Tamil National Alliance (TNA) MP M A Sumanthiran in two separate tweets tagged media reports and wrote "'Ranil Rajapaksa': Wickremesinghe's Power Grab Will End Badly for Sri Lanka", "Why @RW_UNP has become unacceptable to the country to succeed @GotabayaR as President for the rest of the term?

The powerful Bar Association of Sri Lanka also demanded withdrawal of the proclamation declaring a State of Emergency, and to ensure that the fundamental rights of the people are respected and protected and not violated by the State or its agents.

The BASL, in a statement, said it is of the view that at a time when the election to the office of President has been scheduled in Parliament, the Emergency Regulations must not be used to suppress any legitimate expression of opinion on the election of the President nor to suppress any dissent or disagreement on a particular candidate.

Wickremesinghe's decision comes as the 225-member Parliament is expected to elect the new president on July 20. The Parliament is set to accept on Tuesday the nominations for the post of president, which fell vacant last week after Rajapaksa fled the country and later resigned.

Rajapaksa is currently in Singapore where muted protests were organised by a handful of Singaporeans against his presence in the city-state. On Twitter, several Sri Lankans have also been tagging the Singapore government's Twitter account to express their anger at the Republic's decision.

Meanwhile, at least four candidates, including Wickremesinghe, are in the race to become the new president who will serve the remaining tenure of Rajapaksa till November 2024. The voting in parliament is to take place on Wednesday.

On Sunday, the acting president’s office said he had ordered the police to keep track of those who threaten and influence parliamentarians in Wednesday’s vote.

The security around the Parliament complex has been tightened and all the entry roads leading to the parliament have been closed off with roadblocks, according to local media.

Besides Wickremesinghe and Premadasa, Marxist Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) leader Anura Kumara Dissanayake and Dullas Alahapperuma, a breakaway SLPP candidate, are the other two leaders who have so far announced their candidacy to contest the vote in Parliament.

The ruling SLPP has officially announced its backing for Wickremesinghe, who is currently the frontrunner though his United National Party (UNP) was routed in the 2020 parliamentary election.

In his statement, Wickremesinghe explained that the current political crisis in the country is due to the Executive Presidency, and said that the 19th Amendment would be re-introduced which would address many of the concerns of the public.

He also warned that there were elements within society who were attempting to disrupt the peace in the country and said these elements would be prohibited from disrupting the country's progress.

Wickremesinghe said that the government would hold talks with peaceful protesters who had legitimate concerns.

The decision to impose the emergency came amid growing protests demanding Wickremesinghe's resignation.

Sri Lanka is facing its worst economic crisis in seven decades, with a severe foreign exchange shortage hampering the import of essentials including food, fuel and medicines.

A state of emergency was declared several times in Sri Lanka since April when protests sparked against the government.

Wickremesinghe last week too announced a state of emergency after Gotabaya Rajapaksa fled the country, but it had not been officially notified.

The economic crisis also sparked a political crisis in the country after a popular uprising against the government.

The island nation off the tip of southeast India needs about USD 5 billion in the next six months to cover basic necessities for its 22 million people, who have been struggling with long queues, worsening shortages and power cuts.

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