© Reuters. Sri Lanka’s Parliament speaker Mahinda Yapa Abeywardena leaves after a news conference, amid the country’s economic crisis, in Colombo, Sri Lanka July 15, 2022. REUTERS/Alasdair Pal
By Uditha Jayasinghe and Alasdair Pal
COLOMBO (Reuters) -The speaker of Sri Lanka’s parliament formally accepted President Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s resignation on Friday after he fled to Singapore to escape a popular uprising brought about by his country’s worst economic crisis in seven decades.
After suffered from crippling shortages of petrol and diesel and runaway prices of basic items like vegetables and bread for months, Sri Lankans are now waiting for lawmakers to elect a new president on Wednesday.
Until then, Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe will be the interim president although protesters want him gone too. His private residence was set ablaze by protesters last weekend and his office stormed this week.
“From this point, we will move to constitutionally appoint a new president,” the speaker, Mahinda Yapa Abeywardena, told reporters after receiving Rajapaksa’s resignation letter the previous night.
“It will happen quickly and successfully. I request everyone to support this process.”
Rajapaksa landed in Singapore on Thursday, having fled to the Maldives early on Wednesday on a military jet along with his wife and two security guards. Protesters occupied his home and office last weekend after surging past armed guards.
“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.”
Speaker Abeywardena said he hoped to complete the process of selecting a new president in seven days and that parliament will reconvene on Saturday, when lawmakers would be formally told about the vacancy at the top. Parliament will vote for a new president on July 20.
Wickremesinghe is the first choice of the ruling party to take over full time, although no decision has been taken. The opposition’s nominee is Sajith Premadasa, while the potential dark horse is senior lawmaker Dullas Alahapperuma.
After he was sworn in by the chief justice, Wickremesinghe said he would follow the constitutional process and establish law and order in the country.
He also vowed to start the process of increasing parliament’s powers and reducing the president’s, as demanded by protesters.
“This change can be completed by the new president once he is elected by parliament next week,” Wickremesinghe said.
Street protests against Sri Lanka’s economic crisis simmered for months before coming to a head last weekend when hundreds of thousands of people took over government buildings in Colombo, blaming the Rajapaksa family and allies for runaway inflation, shortages of basic goods, and corruption.
Serpentine queues outside fuel pumps have become common, while the government has closed schools and enforced work-from-home for office workers to conserve fuel. The country of 22 million has nearly run out of dollars for imports and defaulted on foreign loans.
Headline inflation hit 54.6% last month and the central bank has warned that it could rise to 70% in coming months.
Sri Lanka had begun preliminary discussions with the International Monetary Fund about a potential bailout loan, but these have been interrupted by the latest government chaos.
IMF spokesman Gerry Rice told reporters on Thursday that Fund staff were still in contact with technical-level government officials but hoped to resume high-level dialogue “as soon as possible.”
Sri Lanka has received billions of dollars in aid from neighbour India in recent months and has also sought help from its fourth-biggest lender, China. Sri Lanka’s ambassador to China told Bloomberg Television that the country was in negotiations with Beijing for as much as $4 billion in aid and was confident of receiving “at some point”.