COLOMBO, Sri Lanka – Sri Lankan lawmakers gathered on Saturday to begin choosing a new leader for the remainder of the term relinquished by the president who fled abroad and resigned after mass protests against the economic collapse of the country.
A day earlier, Sri Lanka’s prime minister was sworn in as interim president until parliament elects a successor to Gotabaya Rajapaksa, whose term ends in 2024. Speaker of Parliament Mahinda Yapa Abeywardana , promised a quick and transparent political process that should take place within a week.
The new president could appoint a new prime minister, who would then have to be approved by parliament.
Parliament Secretary-General Dhammika Dasanayake said in a brief session on Saturday that nominations for the election of the new president will be heard on Tuesday and if there is more than one candidate, lawmakers will vote on Wednesday.
Dasanayake also read aloud Gotabaya’s resignation letter to parliament.
In the letter, Rajapaksa said he was resigning following demands from the Sri Lankan people and political party leaders. He notes that the economic crisis was looming even when he took office in 2019 and was made worse by the frequent lockdowns during the coronavirus pandemic.
Security around the parliament building in the capital, Colombo, was tightened on Saturday with armed masked soldiers on guard and roads near the building closed to the public.
In a televised statement on Friday, Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe said he would take steps to amend the constitution to curb presidential powers and strengthen parliament, restore law and order and take legal action. justice against the “insurgents”.
It was unclear who he was referring to, although he said real protesters were not believed to have been involved in clashes on Wednesday night near Parliament, in which many soldiers were reportedly injured.
“There is a big difference between protesters and insurgents. We will take legal action against the insurgents,” he said.
Wickremesinghe became interim president after Rajapaksa fled Sri Lanka on Wednesday and flew first to the Maldives and then to Singapore. Many protesters insisted that Wickremesinghe also step down.
Office of the Sri Lankan President via AP
Meanwhile, Sri Lanka’s opposition leader, who is running for president, has pledged to “listen to the people” and hold Rajapaksa accountable.
In an interview with The Associated Press from his office, Sajith Premadasa said if he won the parliamentary elections he would ensure that “an elective dictatorship never, ever happens” in Sri Lanka.
“That’s what we should do. That’s our job – to catch those who have plundered Sri Lanka. It should be done through proper constitutional, legal and democratic procedures,” Premadasa said.
Sri Lanka lacks money to pay for imports of basic necessities such as food, fertilizer, medicine and fuel for 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.
The protests underscored the dramatic downfall of the Rajapaksa political clan that has ruled Sri Lanka for most of the past two decades.
Reverend Jeewantha Peiris, a Catholic priest and protest leader, said the country had “gone through a difficult journey”.
“We are happy as a collective effort because this Sri Lankan struggle has been participated by all citizens of Sri Lanka, even the Sri Lankan Diaspora,” he said.
Sri Lanka remains a powder keg and the military on Thursday warned it had the power to respond in the event of chaos – a message some found disturbing.
The speaker urged the public to “create a peaceful atmosphere” for the democratic process and for parliament to “operate freely and conscientiously”.
Sri Lanka 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.
Protesters blame the former president and his family for Sri Lanka’s economic collapse
Protesters accuse Rajapaksa and his powerful political family of siphoning money from government coffers 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 last weekend when protesters stormed the president’s home and office and Wickremesinghe’s official residence. On Wednesday, they seized his office.
Protesters initially vowed to stay until a new government is in place, but changed tack on Thursday, apparently worried that an escalation in violence could undermine their message following clashes outside parliament which injured dozens.
Protester Mirak Raheem noted the lack of violence and said the job was far from done.
“It’s really something incredible, the fact that this happened following a largely peaceful protest. But it’s obviously only the beginning,” Raheem said, citing the reconstruction work of economy and restoring public confidence in the political system.
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 had not applied for asylum and it was unclear whether he would stay or move on. He has already obtained medical services there, including heart surgery.
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.
As a military strategist whose brutal campaign helped end the country’s 26-year civil war, Rajapaksa and his brother, who was president at the time, have already won acclaim from the Sinhalese Buddhist majority in the country. island. 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.