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Sri Lanka Imposes Emergency Ahead of Key Vote for President

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Trade union representatives and activists shout slogans during a protest against Sri Lanka’s acting president Ranil Wickremesinghe in Colombo, Sri Lanka, July 18, 2022.

Acting Sri Lankan President Ranil Wickremesinghe has declared a state of emergency two days before lawmakers meet to choose a new president for the island nation battling an economic crisis and mired in political uncertainty.

An official announcement late Sunday said the emergency is being imposed "in the interest of public security, the protection of public order and the maintenance of supplies and services essential to the life of the community."

Wickremesinghe was sworn in as acting president following the resignation of Gotabaya Rajapaksa on Thursday.

A nationwide emergency was also imposed last week after demonstrators stormed the prime minister's office. It was the third key government building they overran during a tumultuous week that led to Rajapaksa's ouster.

But the fresh announcement caused surprise — Colombo has been calm since the protesters vacated the buildings saying they want their struggle to remain peaceful.

"A state of emergency should be declared when the country faces a genuine threat. At the moment, while there is political uncertainty, I don't see the reason for an emergency," said Bhavani Fonseka, senior researcher at the Center for Policy Alternatives, in Colombo. "So, there are real concerns as to why it has been imposed."

Girls display their arms painted with message "Ranil go home' referring to Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe at the protest site in Colombo, Sri Lanka, July 17, 2022.
Girls display their arms painted with message "Ranil go home' referring to Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe at the protest site in Colombo, Sri Lanka, July 17, 2022.

Wickremesinghe said in a statement Monday that negotiations with the International Monetary Fund for a bailout package were nearing conclusion. The government has been trying to secure a rescue package for the country amid Sri Lanka's deepening economic crisis. There has been no comment from IMF on the state of the talks.

The country of 22 million has run out of money to import food, fuel and medicine and has defaulted on its international debt.

Political analysts say restoring stability in the government could be crucial for winning support from the IMF for a bailout.

Security has been stepped up in Sri Lanka's capital ahead of the vote for president scheduled to take place Wednesday after nominations are made in parliament Tuesday.

Wickremesinghe is expected to be among the leading contenders, as the ruling party, the largest group in parliament, has said it will back him, although some party members are opposed to the choice.

But the mass protests that roiled the country also demanded his resignation, and many demonstrators say they will continue their campaign for his ouster if he wins.

"Wickremesinghe took over as prime minister two months ago saying that he will stabilize the country, but nothing of the sort has happened,' said Vraie Balthazaar, who represents a youth group involved in the protests. "He represents the same system as the Rajapaksas. That is not what we signed up for. What we want is genuine change."

The protesters accuse Rajapaksa and his family, who controlled the administration, of mismanaging the economy and of corruption.

Sajith Premadasa, leader of the main opposition party, has declared that he will also contest the presidential polls, but his party has only 54 seats in the 225-member parliament.

"Even though it is an uphill struggle, I am convinced that truth will prevail," he said in a statement last week.

The U.N. World Food Program said Sri Lanka's economic crisis has forced nearly nine out of 10 families to cut back on the amount of food they eat.

U.N. spokesman Farhan Haq said Monday nearly 5.7 million people in Sri Lanka are "in need of life-saving assistance."

He said in the past year, the price of rice — a staple of the country's diet — has more than doubled, while the price of wheat flour has almost tripled.

The Food and Agriculture Organization will supply 100 kg of fertilizer to over 15,000 small-scale farmers in Sri Lanka and will work with them to boost seed production, Haq said.

Margaret Besheer contributed to this report. Some information in this report came from The Associated Press and Reuters.

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