Sri Lanka to begin process of choosing new leader as president-in-exile finally resigns

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Sri Lanka’s parliament will meet on Saturday to initiate the process of electing a new leader, its speaker announced on Friday after formally accepting the resignation of exiled president Gotabaya Rajapaksa.

“From this point, we will move to constitutionally appoint a new president,” speaker Mahinda Yapa Abeywardena told reporters. “It will happen quickly and successfully. I request everyone to support this process.”

The elected president will serve out the remainder of Mr Rajapaksa’s term, which was set to end in 2024. The speaker added that he hoped the process would be completed in seven days.

Attempting to escape a popular uprising brought about by the worst economic crisis in seven decades in his country, Mr Rajapaksa fled to the Maldives on Wednesday, and then landed in Singapore on Thursday.

Though it was not immediately clear if the southeast Asian nation would be his final destination, Singapore’s foreign ministry said he was allowed to enter on a private visit and has not requested asylum.

Protests have been simmering across Sri Lanka for months as the island nation ran out of money to import basic necessities, including food, medicine and fuel.

It came to a head last weekend when hundreds of thousands of people took over the president’s home and office and prime minister Ranil Wickremesinghe’s official residence in Colombo, blaming the Rajapaksa family and their allies for runaway inflation, shortages of basic goods and corruption.

Images of protesters inside the buildings — lounging on elegant sofas and beds, posing at officials’ desks, and touring the opulent settings — captured the world’s attention.

People take pictures at president Gotabaya Rajapaksa's official residence in Colombo on 11 July after storming into it (AP)
People take pictures at president Gotabaya Rajapaksa's official residence in Colombo on 11 July after storming into it (AP)

Mr Rajapaksa’s resignation, first sent to the speaker by email before a hard copy was delivered, triggered a wave of jubilation in Colombo, and protesters retreated from the occupied government buildings.

“We are so happy today that he resigned and we feel that when we, the people, come together, we can do everything,” said Arunanandan, 34, a school teacher who had been camping at the main protest site opposite the presidential secretariat for the past three months. “We are the real power in this country.”

Maduka Iroshan, 26, a university student and protester, said he was thrilled that Rajapaksa had quit, because he had “ruined the dreams of the young generation”.

While protesters initially planned to stay in the former president’s home and offices till a new government was in place, they have now changed their stance.

“Taking over his residence was a great moment. It showed just how much we wanted him to step down,” said performing artist Visaka Jayaweer, adding that it was, however, also a great relief to leave.

“We were worried if people would act out — many were angry to see the luxury he had been living in when they were outside, struggling to buy milk for their children.”

Meanwhile, Speaker Abeywardana promised a swift and transparent process for electing a new president.

“I request the honourable and loving citizens of this country to create a peaceful atmosphere in order to implement the proper parliamentary democratic process and enable all members of parliament to participate in the meetings and function freely and conscientiously,” he said.

A protester wraps the national flag around his shoulders in the compound of the presidential secretariat in Colombo, Sri Lanka on 15 July (AP)
A protester wraps the national flag around his shoulders in the compound of the presidential secretariat in Colombo, Sri Lanka on 15 July (AP)

The new leader could also potentially appoint a new prime minister to replace acting president and incumbent prime minister Ranil Wickremesinghe, who is also facing pressure to step down.

“I am happy that Gotabaya has finally left. He should have resigned earlier, without causing much problems,” Velauynatha Pillai, 73, a retired bank employee, said as patriotic songs were blaring from loudspeakers.

But he added: “Ranil is a supporter of Gotabaya and other Rajapaksas. He was helping them. He also must go.”

With inflation hitting 54.6 per cent last month and the central bank warning it could rise to about 70 per cent, Sri Lanka had begun a preliminary discussion with the International Monetary Fund about a potential bailout loan.

The talks were, however, interrupted by the latest chaos in government.

Gerry Rice, an IMF spokesperson, told reporters that the fund was still in contact with technical-level government officials and hoped to resume high-level dialogue “as soon as possible”.

Additional reporting by agencies

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