Gotabaya Rajapaksa has officially resigned as Sri Lanka's President, the Parliamentary Speaker announced on Friday, ending days of uncertainty since the deposed leader fled the island amid monumental public protests over an economic crisis gripping the country. “I have accepted the resignation,” Mahinda Yapa Abeywardana told reporters.
Hours later, Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe was sworn in as Acting President as per the Constitution, even as members of Parliament prepare to elect a new President from among themselves through a secret ballot. “I hope to complete the process of electing a new President within seven days,” Mr. Abeywardana said. Parliament is scheduled to convene on Saturday to initiate the process.
Sri Lanka urgently needs a new President and a government in place to address the worsening economic crisis that has severely disrupted supply of essentials, including fuel, food and medicines.
According to the Sri Lankan Constitution, if the office of the President falls vacant, a new President must be elected through Parliament within one month. Acting President Mr. Wickremesinghe, according to political sources, has set his sights on the country’s top office that has eluded him in his nearly-half century career in national politics, with six stints as Premier.
Significantly, the Rajapaksas’ ruling Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP or People’s Front) has a majority in the legislature, while Mr. Wickremesinghe is the sole member of his United National Party (UNP) in Parliament. Mr. Wickremesinghe is yet to make an official announcement on his plans, but MPs from different parties told The Hindu that frantic discussions were on to garner support for him.
In his first statement as Acting President, Mr. Wickremesinghe vowed to “re-implement” the 19th Amendment, referring to a 2015 legislation that clipped the Executive’s powers, in turn empowering Parliament. Urging political parties to agree on an all-party government, he said: “Put aside your personal ambitions. Put the needs of the country first.” He emphasised the need for law and order, days after empowering the military to keep them under check. “There are groups that are trying to set the country on fire through fascist methods by suppressing democracy,” he said.
Should Mr. Wickremesinghe contest, he will face former Minister and long-time Rajapaksa loyalist Dullas Alahapperuma, who sits in an “independent group” in Parliament. Declaring his candidacy in a tweet on Friday, the senior legislator from the southern Matara district sought the support of fellow MPs, “who believe Sri Lanka needs to embark on a new, constructive course.”
Meanwhile, Opposition leader Sajith Premadasa, who earlier said he would run for presidency, is reportedly exploring possibilities of teaming up with Mr. Alahapperuma, possibly as Prime Minister, but “things are still very fluid,” an opposition legislator said, requesting anonymity. A secret ballot complicates the exercise, the MP explained, as there was no way to tell which way a legislator voted, despite promising support for one of the two candidates.
Irrespective of who is elected, the new President will have an unenviable task of taking urgent and likely harsh measures to arrest the country’s rapid economic decline.
The change at the country’s helm was sparked by the storming of the President’s office and home last weekend by protesters, that forced Mr. Gotabaya to flee for his life, first to the Maldives and later to Singapore, where he is currently located.
Public fury against Mr. Gotabaya and his family members, who held prominent positions of power in the government, surged this year as citizens suffocated amid crippling shortages and soaring living costs that, they said, his government failed to address. The agitations, that first manifested as pocket protests, built up over the last three months at Colombo’s seafront and several other locations across the island, and culminated in the unprecedented show of resistance in the capital on July 9.