Sri Lanka police fire tear gas at election protest; 15 hurt

COLOMBO (AP): Police in Sri Lanka on Sunday fired tear gas and water cannons to disperse protesters angry over a decision to postpone local elections after the government said it cannot finance them because of the country’s crippling economic crisis.

About 15 people were treated for minor injuries, according to Colombo National Hospital.

Thousands of supporters of the opposition National People’s Power party tried to march toward the main business district in capital Colombo, ignoring police warnings after a court order barred them from entering the area, which includes the president’s residence, office and several key government buildings.

The order had been obtained in the backdrop of last July’s massive protests, when thousands of people stormed the presidential office and residence and occupied them for days. The crisis forced then-President Gotabaya Rajapaksa to flee the country and resign.

The turmoil was caused by severe shortages of some foods, fuel, cooking gas and medicine, after Sri Lanka went bankrupt because it could not repay its foreign debt. The new president, Ranil Wickremesinghe, negotiated a rescue package with the International Monetary Fund for $2.9 billion over four years, but it can be finalized only if Sri Lanka’s creditors give assurances on debt restructuring.

Sri Lanka’s total foreign debt exceeds $ 51 billion, of which it must repay $28 billion by 2027. India and several other creditor countries have so far given assurances that meet the IMF standards, but the deal hinges on whether China would agree to debt restructuring at the same level.

The Finance Ministry under Wickremesinghe said it can’t allocate sufficient funds for the March 9 elections for town and village councils, even though political parties had submitted nominations.

The decision forced the Election Commission to indefinitely postpone the elections.

Despite signs of progress in reducing shortages and ending daily power cuts after nearly a year, Wickremesinghe is immensely unpopular. Many people say he lacks the mandate because he was elected by lawmakers backed by Rajapaksa supporters. They accuse Wickremesinghe of protecting members of the Rajapaksa family from corruption allegations in return for backing him in Parliament.

The National People’s Power party, which organized Sunday’s rally, has only three lawmakers in Sri Lanka’s 225-member Parliament but it enjoys a wave of public support after the economic crisis eroded the popularity of traditional political parties that have ruled Sri Lanka since independence.