Sri Lanka’s Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe has been sworn in as acting president after the speaker of the parliament accepted a resignation letter sent by embattled President Gotabaya Rajapaksa after he fled the country.
Wickremesinghe on Friday asked legislators to work towards a consensus to establish an all-party government and said he would follow the constitutional process and establish law and order after months of anti-Rajapaksa protests in a country faced with crippling fuel shortages and runaway prices of basic items.
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The 73-year-old, who had already taken the role after Rajapaksa headed to Singapore via the Maldives, took his oath of office before Chief Justice Jayantha Jayasuriya. As per the constitution, the prime minister automatically becomes president in the event of a resignation.
“I am bound to protect the constitution,” Wickremesinghe said after being sworn in.
“I will never allow anything unconstitutional to take place in our country. I am not working outside the constitution. If law and order breaks down, it will affect our economy.
“Like fuel, our electricity and water supply as well as our food supply can be disrupted. We all need to understand this dangerous situation.”
Sri Lanka's PM Ranil Wickremesinghe has been sworn in as acting president until a new administration is decided by parliament.
Former president Gotabaya Rajapaksa formally resigned on Thursday after fleeing a popular uprising over the economic crisis. pic.twitter.com/TeECaKpmmh
— Al Jazeera English (@AJEnglish) July 15, 2022
Earlier, Parliamentary Speaker Mahinda Yapa Abeywardana confirmed that Rajapaksa “has officially resigned from his position”.
The formal declaration makes Rajapaksa – once known as “The Terminator” for his ruthless crushing of the Tamil rebellion – the first Sri Lankan head of state to resign since it adopted an executive presidency in 1978.
Parliament will now meet on Wednesday to elect a politician to serve out the remainder of Rajapaksa’s term ending in 2024, with nominations due the previous day.
Likely candidates include Wickremesinghe himself, as well as opposition leader Sajith Premadasa and former minister Dullas Alahapperuma, according to reports. Former army commander, Field Marshal Sarath Fonseka has also told the media that many MPs are asking him to enter the contest.
“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,” Abeywardana said.
‘He must go’
The protesters accuse Rajapaksa and his powerful political family of siphoning money from government coffers for years and of hastening the country’s collapse by mismanaging the economy. The family has denied the corruption allegations but Rajapaksa acknowledged that some of his policies contributed to Sri Lanka’s meltdown.
Protesters cooked and distributed milk rice – a food Sri Lankans enjoy to celebrate victories – after Rajapaksa’s resignation. At the main protest site in front of the president’s office in Colombo, people welcomed his resignation but insisted Wickremesinghe should also step aside.
“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 blared from loudspeakers.
But he added: “Ranil is a supporter of Gotabaya and other Rajapaksas. He was helping them. He also must go.”
Swasthika Arulingam, a lawyer and activist in Colombo, called Rajapaksa’s resignation “a huge day” for Sri Lanka.
“We are relieved that one part of the struggle is over, that Gotabaya Rajapaksa is out of power, but the struggle is just starting,” she told Al Jazeera. “We have other problems to also worry about. We have Ranil Wickremesinghe as executive president now so we have those things to worry about.”
Fall of the Rajapaksa political clan
Protesters who had occupied government buildings retreated on Thursday, restoring a tenuous calm in 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 poor that even obtaining a bailout has proven difficult, Wickremesinghe recently said.
Amid rising tensions, the military warned on Thursday it had powers to respond in case of chaos – a message some found concerning.
Since Sri Lankan presidents are protected from arrest while in power, Rajapaksa likely wanted to leave while he still had constitutional immunity and access to the plane.
The protests underscored the dramatic fall of the Rajapaksa political clan that has ruled Sri Lanka for most of the past 20 years.
A military strategist whose brutal campaign helped end the country’s 26-year civil war, Rajapaksa and his brother Mahinda Rajapaksa, who was president at the time, were hailed by the island’s Buddhist Sinhalese 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 continually denied the allegations.
It was not immediately clear if Singapore would be Rajapaksa’s final destination, but he has previously sought medical care there, including undergoing heart surgery.
Saroj Pathirana contributed to this report from Colombo