Home » Sri Lanka to get new president next week amid worst crisis since independence

Sri Lanka to get new president next week amid worst crisis since independence

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Sri Lanka's parliament will elect a new president on 20 July, its speaker said on Monday, after protesters stormed the residences of the current president and prime minister, who have both offered to quit amid an economic meltdown.President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, who had overseen a ruthless crushing of the Tamil Tigers insurgents as defence secretary, is set to resign on Wednesday.

His brothers and nephew earlier quit as ministers as Sri Lanka began running out of fuel, food and other essentials in the worst crisis since independence from Britain in 1948.

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Sri Lankan president Gotabaya Rajapaksa.Sri Lankan president Gotabaya Rajapaksa.

President Gotabaya Rajapaksa is nowhere to be found with his official residence occupied by thousands of angry citizens. Source: AP / Eranga Jayawardena/AP

Parliament will reconvene on Friday and will vote to elect a new president five days later, Speaker Mahinda Yapa Abeywardena said in a statement. "During the party leaders' meeting held today it was agreed that this was essential to ensure a new all-party government is in place in accordance with the Constitution," the statement added. "The ruling party has said the prime minister and the Cabinet are ready to resign to appoint an all-party government".

Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe, whose private home was set alight by protesters, has said he will step down and cabinet would resign once a deal was reached to form an all-party government.

President Rajapaksa to live in exile

Mr Rajapaksa fled the presidential palace in Colombo under naval protection on Saturday, shortly before tens of thousands of protesters overran the compound.

A top defence official said the 73-year-old leader was brought to the Katunayake airbase adjoining the country's main international airport.

Army officers stand guard as people throng President Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s official residence for the second day after it was stormed in Colombo, Sri Lanka.Army officers stand guard as people throng President Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s official residence for the second day after it was stormed in Colombo, Sri Lanka.

Army officers stand guard as people throng President Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s official residence for the second day after it was stormed in Colombo, Sri Lanka. Source: AP / Rafiq Maqbool/AP

"He and his entourage were flown back to Colombo in two Bell 412 choppers," the official added. There was no official word from the president's office about his whereabouts, and several local media reports speculated he was set to leave for Dubai later Monday. But four commercial flights subsequently took off for Middle Eastern destinations without him, airport officials said. Immigration officers were refusing to go to the VIP suite to stamp his passport, while he insisted he would not go through the public facilities, they added. A humiliating stand-off for the leader once known as 'The Terminator'.

A military source said Mr Rajapaksa, who remains the commander-in-chief of the armed forces, had the option of travelling in an air force aircraft.

Sri Lanka's likely new leaders

The succession process could take between three days, which is the minimum time taken to convene parliament. A maximum of 30 days is allowed under the statute.

The main opposition party Samagi Jana Balawegaya held talks with smaller political groups Monday to secure support for their leader Sajith Premadasa.

Sri Lanka's Opposition Leader and leader of the Samagi Jana Balawegaya Sajith Premadasa acknowledges supporters in Colombo, Sri Lanka, 30 June 2022. Sri Lanka's Opposition Leader and leader of the Samagi Jana Balawegaya Sajith Premadasa acknowledges supporters in Colombo, Sri Lanka, 30 June 2022.

Sri Lanka's Opposition Leader and leader of the Samagi Jana Balawegaya Sajith Premadasa acknowledges supporters in Colombo, Sri Lanka, 30 June 2022. Source: EPA / CHAMILA KARUNARATHNE/EPA

An SJB official said they reached a tentative agreement with dissidents in Mr Rajapaksa's SLPP to support 55-year-old Mr Premadasa, who lost the 2019 presidential election.

Mr Premadasa is the son of former president Ranasinghe Premadasa, who was assassinated in a Tamil rebel suicide bombing in May 1993.

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Mr Rajapaksa's former loyalist Dullas Alahapperuma, 63, an ex-media minister, was tipped to be the new prime minister, an SJB legislator involved in the talks said. The political instability could damage negotiations with the International Monetary Fund (IMF) for a rescue package, the central bank governor said. Governor P. Nandalal Weerasinghe signalled he would stay on in the job although he had said in May he could resign if there was no political stability in the island nation of 22 million.

Leaders of the protest movement have said crowds will occupy the residences of the president and prime minister in Colombo until they finally quit office.

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Over the weekend at the president's house, protesters jumped into the swimming pool, lounged on a four-poster bed, jostled for turns on a treadmill and tried out the sofas.

Colombo was calm on Monday as hundreds of people strolled into the president's secretariat and residence and toured the colonial-era buildings. Police made no attempt to intervene.

People take pictures at President Gotabaya Rajapaksa's official residence on the second day after it was stormed in Colombo, Sri Lanka.People take pictures at President Gotabaya Rajapaksa's official residence on the second day after it was stormed in Colombo, Sri Lanka.

People take pictures at President Gotabaya Rajapaksa's official residence on the second day after it was stormed in Colombo, Sri Lanka. Source: AP / Rafiq Maqbool/AP

Officers said they had received 17.8 million rupees (about $50,000) found by a group of protesters at the president's residence on Saturday.

A video of the youngsters counting out the cash went viral on social media. UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres called for a smooth transition of government and "sustainable solutions" to the economic crisis.

Economic meltdown and 'total chaos'

Constitutional experts say once the president and prime minister resign, the speaker will be appointed as acting president before parliament votes in a new president to complete Mr Rajapaksa's term that was to end in 2024. Sri Lankans have mainly blamed Mr Rajapaksa for the collapse of the tourism-dependent economy, which was hammered badly by the COVID-19 pandemic and a ban on chemical fertilisers that damaged farm output. The ban was later reversed.

Government finances were crippled by mounting debt and lavish tax breaks given by the Rajapaksa regime.

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Foreign exchange reserves were quickly depleted as oil prices rose.

The country barely has any dollars left to import fuel, which has been severely rationed, and long lines have formed in front of shops selling cooking gas. Headline inflation hit 54.6 per cent last month, and the central bank has warned that it could rise to 70 per cent in the coming months. TLutz Roehmeyer of Capitulum Asset Management, which holds Sri Lanka dollar bonds, said an IMF deal could happen this year or next, but for bondholders, a restructuring was likely only in 2024 or 2025, not next year.

"It's total chaos," Mr Roehmeyer said. "Expectations are that the transition of power will be more chaotic and it will take longer to strike a deal."

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