COLOMBO (Reuters) – Sri Lanka’s parliament on Friday accepted the resignation of President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, officially ending the rule of the country’s most powerful political dynasty that has held power for nearly two decades.
Rajapaksa fled to the Maldives on Wednesday to escape a popular uprising over his family’s role in the country’s worst economic crisis since independence from Britain in 1948.
For months, the island nation of 22 million people has grappled with daily power cuts and shortages of basics such as fuel, food and medicine as foreign currency reserves have run out, making Sri Lanka unable to pay for imports.
Protests erupted in Colombo in March and have since escalated, spreading across the country.
They culminated last week, when thousands of protesters stormed parliament and government buildings. Protesters continued to occupy the buildings until Thursday afternoon.
Rajapaksa tendered his resignation as he left the Maldives for Singapore.
The official announcement of his resignation was made in a televised address by Speaker of Parliament Mahinda Yapa Abeywardena on Friday morning.
Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe, who has been sworn in as interim president, said lawmakers would choose the country’s new leader and amend the constitution to curtail presidential powers.
“Steps are being taken for the new president who will be elected next week to present the 19th Amendment to parliament,” Wickremesinghe said.
The amendment, which strengthened parliament in 2015, was dropped when Rajapaksa became president in 2019.
Rajapaksa’s fall as president marks the formal ousting of his family from government.
The political dynasty began with the former president’s older brother, Mahinda Rajapaksa, who served as president in 2005-15. During his presidential tenure, he was credited in 2009 with ending the country’s 30-year civil war with rebels known as the Tamil Tigers.
Mahinda’s three brothers were also involved in politics at this time: Gotabaya headed the defense ministry, Chamal – the eldest of the Rajapaksa siblings – was speaker of parliament, and the youngest, Basil, was a cabinet minister.
After Mahinda’s presidential term ended, he was absent from senior leadership for three years until he became prime minister in 2018.
When Gotabaya won the presidency in 2019, the family’s grip on power grew stronger: Chamal Rajapaksa was soon appointed Minister of Irrigation and Minister of State for Interior, National Security and disaster management, while Basil was appointed finance minister. Mahinda’s son, Namal Rajapaksa, became Minister of Youth and Sports.
While all have resigned in recent months as protests – dubbed “aragalaya” (struggle) – have swept the country, opinions are divided on whether the Rajapaksa era ended with the ousting of the president.
“The ‘aragalaya’ of hungry and angry young people in Sri Lanka has succeeded in eliminating the rule of the Rajapaksa family in such a way that none of them will dare to resume a political role in the country for decades “said the Supreme Court lawyer and former diplomat. MM Zuhair told Arab News.
He said those who led the popular uprising should now prevent the re-emergence of junior Rajapaksas to power.
But the family’s grip could be restored thanks to its ally, the current interim president, according to Dr Dayan Jayatillake, Sri Lanka’s former envoy to the UN in Geneva.
The Sri Lankan party Podujana Peramuna, majority in parliament and led by Mahinda Rajapaksa, has already announced its support for Wickremesinghe to become the country’s leader in the legislative elections.
“If Ranil returns as president, Rajapaksa’s influence will definitely be in effect,” Jayatillake said.
The Wickremesinghe scenario is what protesters say they will also try to prevent.
Senaka Perera, a prominent lawyer representing the protesters, said they also wanted Wickremesinghe out.
“The goal has not yet been achieved,” he told Arab News.
Wickremesinghe “is a lackey of Rajapaksa, his presence in government is worth that of one of the Rajapaksa”.
Parliament is expected to convene on Saturday to begin the process of electing the country’s new leader, who will serve until the end of Rajapaksa’s term in 2024.