COLOMBO, Sri Lanka ( Associated Press) — Sri Lankan lawmakers met Saturday to begin choosing a new leader to serve out the remainder of the term abandoned by the president who fled abroad and resigned after mass protests over the country’s economic collapse. 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. Parliament Speaker Mahinda Yapa Abeywardana promised a swift and transparent political process that should be done within a week.
The new president could appoint a new prime minister, who would then have to be approved by Parliament.
READ MORE: Sri Lankan PM sworn in as interim president amid protests over economic collapse
Parliament Secretary-General Dhammika Dasanayake said during a brief session on Saturday that nominations for the new president will be heard on Tuesday and if there is more than one candidate, lawmakers will vote on Wednesday.
Dasanayake also read out Gotabaya’s letter of resignation in Parliament.
In the letter, Rajapaksa says he would resign following requests from the Sri Lankan people and political party leaders. He points out that the economic crisis was looming even when he took office in 2019 and was exacerbated by frequent closures during the coronavirus pandemic.
Security around the Parliament building in the capital Colombo was stepped up on Saturday with armed masked soldiers standing guard and streets near the building closed to the public.
In a televised statement on Friday, Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe said he would take steps to change the constitution to limit presidential powers and strengthen parliament, restore law and order and take legal action against “insurgents.”
It was not clear who he was referring to, although he said real protesters would not have been involved in Wednesday night’s clashes near Parliament, where 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, flying first to the Maldives and then to Singapore. Many protesters insisted that Wickremesinghe should also step aside.
READ MORE: Sri Lanka’s political stalemate continues as protesters leave occupied buildings
Meanwhile, Sri Lanka’s opposition leader, who is seeking the presidency, has vowed to “listen to the people” and hold Rajapaksa accountable.
In an interview with The Associated Press from his office, Sajith Premadasa said that if he wins the parliamentary election, he would ensure that “an elective dictatorship never, ever happens” in Sri Lanka.
“That is what we must do. That is our role: to catch those who looted Sri Lanka. That must be done through proper constitutional, legal and democratic procedures,” Premadasa said.
Sri Lanka has run out of money to pay for imports of basic necessities such as food, fertilizer, medicine and fuel for its 22 million people. Its rapid economic decline has been all the more shocking because, prior to this crisis, the economy had been expanding, with a growing and affluent middle class.
The protests underlined the dramatic fall of the Rajapaksa political clan that has ruled Sri Lanka for most of the last two decades.
The Rev. Jeewantha Peiris, a Catholic priest and leader of the protest, said the country had “gone through a difficult road”.
“We are happy as a collective effort because this Sri Lankan struggle was participated by all Sri Lankans, including the Sri Lankan diaspora,” he said.
READ MORE: Sri Lankan president flees amid national crisis
Sri Lanka remains a tinderbox, and the army warned on Thursday that it had powers to respond in the event of chaos, a message that some found ominous.
The speaker urged the public to “create a peaceful atmosphere” for the democratic process and for Parliament to “function freely and conscientiously.”
Sri Lanka is seeking help from the International Monetary Fund and other creditors, but its finances are so bad that even getting a bailout has proven difficult, Wickremesinghe said recently.
Protesters accuse Rajapaksa and his powerful in-laws of siphoning money from government coffers and accelerating the country’s collapse by mismanaging the economy. The family has denied allegations of corruption, but Rajapaksa acknowledged 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 had resigned, because “he ruined the dreams of the young generation”.
Months of protests reached a frantic peak last weekend when demonstrators stormed the president’s home and office and Wickremesinghe’s official residence. On Wednesday, they took over his office.
Protesters initially vowed to stay until a new government is established, but changed tack on Thursday, apparently concerned that an escalation of violence could undermine their message after clashes outside Parliament left dozens injured.
Protester Mirak Raheem noted the lack of violence and said the job was far from done.
“This is really an amazing thing, the fact that it happened on the back of a largely peaceful protest. But obviously this is just the beginning,” Raheem said, citing the work to rebuild the economy and restore public confidence in the political system.
Rajapaksa and his wife slipped away at night aboard a military plane early Wednesday. 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 not clear whether he would stay or move on. He previously obtained medical services there, including heart surgery.
Since Sri Lankan presidents are protected from arrest while in power, it is likely that Rajapaksa wanted to leave while he still had constitutional immunity and 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, were once hailed by the island’s Sinhalese Buddhist majority. Despite allegations of wartime atrocities, including ordering military strikes against ethnic Tamil civilians and kidnapping journalists, Rajapaksa remained popular with many Sri Lankans. He has continually denied the allegations.