Sri Lanka to begin process of choosing new president Saturday

Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe was sworn in as Sri Lanka's interim president Friday until parliament elects a successor to Gotabaya Rajapaksa, who resigned after mass protests over the country's economic collapse forced him from office.

In the meantime, heavily-criticized PM Ranil Wickremesinghe sworn in as interim president

A protester drinks a cup of tea Friday in Colombo, Sri Lanka's capital, as she sits by a defaced poster carrying portraits of ousted president Gotabaya Rajapaksa, centre, and Rajapaksa's influential brothers. (Eranga Jayawardena/The Associated Press)

Sri Lanka's prime minister was sworn in Friday as interim president until parliament elects a successor to Gotabaya Rajapaksa, who fled abroad and resigned after mass protests over the country's economic collapse.

Lawmakers were to convene Saturday to begin choosing a new leader who would serve the remainder of Rajapaksa's term, which ends in 2024.

A tenuous calm returned to the capital of Colombo on Thursday after protesters who had occupied government buildings retreated, but with the political opposition deeply fractured, a solution to Sri Lanka's many problems seemed no closer.

As people celebrated in the streets, Parliament Speaker Mahinda Yapa Abeywardana promised a swift and transparent political process that should be done within a week.

Pressure rising

The new president could appoint a new prime minister, who would then have to be approved by Parliament. After Rajapaksa resigned, pressure on the prime minister, Ranil Wickremesinghe, was rising.

In a televised statement, Wickremesinghe said he would initiate steps to change the constitution to clip presidential powers and strengthen parliament, restore law and order and take legal action against "insurgents."

Three man stand around a table, with two of them folding their hands in a prayer-like position.
In this photograph provided by the Sri Lankan President's Office, interim President Ranil Wickremesinghe, right, greets Chief Justice Jayantha Jayasuriya during the oath-taking ceremony in Colombo. Wickremesinghe was sworn in as Sri Lanka's interim president Friday until parliament elects a successor. (AP)

It was unclear to whom he was referring, although he said true protesters would not have gotten involved in clashes Wednesday night near Parliament, where many soldiers reportedly were injured.

"There is a big difference between protesters and insurgents. We will take legal action against insurgents," he said.

Wickremesinghe became acting president after Rajapaksa fled Sri Lanka on Wednesday, flying first to the Maldives and then to Singapore. The prime minister's office said Wickremesinghe was sworn in Friday.

Meanwhile, Sri Lanka's opposition leader, who is seeking the presidency, vowed to "listen to the people" and to hold Rajapaksa accountable.

In an interview with The Associated Press from his office, Sajith Premadasa said that if he wins the election in parliament, he would ensure that "an elective dictatorship never, ever occurs" in Sri Lanka.

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"That's what we should do. That is our function — catching those who looted Sri Lanka. That should be done through proper constitutional, legal, democratic procedures," Premadasa said.

Sri Lanka has run short 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, before this crisis, the economy had been expanding, with a growing, comfortable middle class.

Celebratory treat

The protests underscored the dramatic fall of the Rajapaksa political clan that has ruled Sri Lanka for most of the past two decades.

Several people hold a large tray of dessert treats.
Demonstrators distribute auspicious milk rice on Friday in Colombo as a part of celebration after the resignation of ousted Sri Lanka's Gotabaya Rajapaksa as president. (Arun Sankar/AFP/Getty Images)

The Rev. Jeewantha Peiris, a Catholic priest and protest leader, said the country had "come through a hard journey."

"We are happy as a collective effort because this struggle of Sri Lanka was participated by all the citizens of Sri Lanka, even [the] diaspora of Sri Lanka," he said.

Protesters cooked and distributed milk rice — a food Sri Lankans enjoy to celebrate victories — after Rajapaksa resigned. At the main protest site in front of the president's office in Colombo, people welcomed his resignation but insisted Wickremesinghe also should step aside.

Several men in COVID masks and military fatigues lean against a barricade.
Police personnel stand guard behind a barricade on the road leading to the Sri Lankan parliament on Friday. (Abhishek Chinnappa/Getty Images)

Sri Lanka remains a powder keg, its economy in ruins. And the military warned Thursday that it had powers to respond in case of chaos — a message some found ominous.

Abeywardana, the speaker of Parliament, urged the public 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."

Sri Lanka 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. 

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.

Outgoing president now in Singapore

Months of protests reached a frenzied peak over the weekend when demonstrators stormed the president's home and office and Wickremesinghe's official residence. On Wednesday, they seized his office.

Police officers stand Friday near the vandalized entry to Sri Lanka's presidential palace. (Abhishek Chinnappa/Getty Images)

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.

The demonstrators initially vowed to stay until a new government was in place, but they shifted tactics Thursday, apparently concerned that an escalation in violence could undermine their message following clashes outside Parliament that left dozens injured.

Rajapaksa and his wife slipped away in the night aboard a military plane early Wednesday. On Thursday, he went to Singapore, according to the city-state's Foreign Ministry. It said he had not requested asylum, and it was unclear if he would stay or move on. He previously has obtained medical services there, including undergoing heart surgery.

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.