COLOMBO, Sri Lanka – Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe was sworn in as interim president of Sri Lanka on Friday until parliament elects a successor to Gotabaya Rajapaksa, who resigned after mass protests against the collapse economy of the country forced him out of office.
Sri Lanka’s parliament speaker said Rajapaksa had stepped down as speaker effective Thursday and lawmakers would meet on Saturday to choose a new leader. Their choice would serve the remainder of Rajapaksa’s term ending in 2024, President Mahinda Yapa Abeywardana said. He expects the process to be completed in seven days.
This person could potentially appoint a new Prime Minister, who would then have to be approved by Parliament. Once Rajapaksa was done, the pressure on Wickremesinghe increased.
Opponents had seen his appointment as prime minister in May as a relief from pressure on Rajapaksa to step down. He became interim president when Rajapaksa fled Sri Lanka on Wednesday.
Rajapaksa arrived in Singapore on Thursday and his resignation became official on that date. The prime minister’s office said Wickremesinghe was sworn in as interim president on Friday before Chief Justice Jayantha Jayasuriya.
Sri Lanka is running out of money to pay for imports of basic necessities such as food, fertilizer, medicine and fuel, to the despair of its 22 million people. Its rapid economic decline was all the more shocking because before this crisis, the economy was booming, with a growing and comfortable middle class.
After Rajapaksa’s resignation, protesters cooked and distributed rice pudding – a food Sri Lankans enjoy to celebrate victories. At the main protest site outside the president’s office in Colombo, people hailed his resignation but insisted that Wickremesinghe must step down as well.
“I’m glad Gotabaya finally left. He should have resigned earlier, without causing too much trouble,” said Velauynatha Pillai, 73, a retired bank worker, as patriotic songs blared from loudspeakers. .
But he added that “Ranil is a supporter of Gotabaya and other Rajapaksas. He was helping them. He too must go.”
Protesters who had occupied government buildings retreated on Thursday, restoring an uneasy calm to the capital, Colombo. But with the political opposition in parliament fractured, a solution to Sri Lanka’s many woes seemed no closer.
The nation is seeking help from the International Monetary Fund and other creditors, but its finances are so bad that even securing a bailout has proven difficult, Wickremesinghe said recently.
The country remains a powder keg and the military warned on Thursday that it had the power to react in the event of chaos – a message that some found concerning.
Abeywardana promised a quick and transparent process for the election of a new president.
“I call on the honorable and loving citizens of this country to create a peaceful atmosphere in order to carry out the proper parliamentary democratic process and to allow all members of Parliament to participate in meetings and to function freely and conscientiously,” he said. he said on Friday.
Protesters accuse Rajapaksa and his powerful political family of siphoning off money from government coffers for years and hastening the country’s collapse by mismanaging the economy. The family denied allegations of corruption, but Rajapaksa admitted that some of his policies contributed to the collapse of Sri Lanka.
Maduka Iroshan, 26, a university student and protester, said he was “delighted” that Rajapaksa quit because he “ruined the dreams of the younger generation”.
Months of protests reached a frenzied peak over the weekend when protesters stormed the president’s home and office and Wickremesinghe’s official residence. On Wednesday, they seized his office.
Images of protesters inside the buildings – lying on sleek couches and beds, posing outside officials’ desks and touring the lavish venues – captured the world’s attention.
Protesters initially vowed to stay until a new government is in place, but changed tack on Thursday, apparently fearing an escalation in violence could undermine their message following clashes outside parliament which injured dozens.
“The fear was that there was a crack in the confidence they held for the fight,” said Nuzly, a surnamed protest leader. “We have shown what people power can do, but that doesn’t mean we have to occupy these places.”
The closing of the presidential palace gate after the crowd left was bittersweet, said Visaka Jayaweer, an entertainer.
“Returning to his residency was a great moment. It showed how much we wanted him to step down. But it’s also a great relief” to leave, she said. “We were concerned if people took action – many were angry to see the luxury he lived in when they were out struggling to buy milk for their children.”
Rajapaksa and his wife slipped away overnight on a military plane on Wednesday morning. On Thursday, he traveled to Singapore, according to the city-state’s foreign ministry. He said he did not apply for asylum.
Given that Sri Lankan presidents are protected from arrest while in office, Rajapaksa likely wanted to leave while he still enjoyed constitutional immunity and had access to the plane.
The protests underscored the dramatic downfall of the Rajapaksa political clan that has ruled Sri Lanka for most of the past two decades.
Gotabaya Rajapaksa, a military strategist whose brutal campaign helped end the country’s 26-year civil war, and his brother, who was president at the time, were hailed by the island’s Sinhalese Buddhist majority . Despite accusations of wartime atrocities, including ordering military attacks on ethnic Tamil civilians and abducting journalists, Rajapaksa remained popular among many Sri Lankans. He has always denied the allegations.
It was not immediately clear whether Singapore would be Rajapaksa’s final destination, but he has already sought medical treatment there, including heart surgery.