Sri Lanka’s Parliament held a special session on Saturday to start the process of electing a new President on July 20 following the resignation of Gotabaya Rajapaksa, with four contenders, including acting President Ranil Wickremesinghe, joining the race to head the next government that has the arduous task to revive the country’s bankrupt economy.
During a 13-minute special session, Dhammika Dassanayake, Secretary General of the Parliament, announced the vacancy for the post of the president after the resignation of Rajapaksa, who fled the country after a popular uprising against him for mishandling the country’s economic crisis.
Rajapaksa, who fled to the Maldives on Wednesday and then landed in Singapore on Thursday, formally resigned on Friday, capping off a chaotic 72 hours in the crisis-hit nation that saw protesters storm many iconic buildings, including the President and the Prime Minister’s residences here.
The 225-member Parliament is dominated by Rajapaksa’s ruling Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP) party.
Besides Wickremesinghe and main Opposition leader Sajith Premadasa, Marxist Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) leader Anura Kumara Dissanayake and Dullas Alahapperuma, a breakaway SLPP candidate, are the other two leaders who have so far announced their candidacy to contest the vote in the Parliament. The new President will serve for the rest of Rajapaksa’s term until November 2024.
The ruling SLPP has officially announced its backing for Wickremesinghe. Prime Minister Wickremesinghe was sworn-in as the acting President.
The 73-year-old politician is currently the frontrunner though his United National Party (UNP) was routed in the 2020 parliamentary election.
At the special Parliament session, the Secretary of the Parliament, Dhammika Dassanayake, read out the resignation letter from Rajapaksa to Speaker Mahinda Yapa Abeywardena in which the former president defended his actions to address the economic crisis as well as the political turmoil.
Dassanayake informed the House, which met under tight security, that nominations for Presidency should be submitted to him on July 19. He also said if more than one candidate has submitted nominations, a vote would be taken in the Parliament on July 20 to elect the new President.
Rajapaksa, 73, blamed the COVID-19 pandemic and the lockdown for Sri Lanka’s economic woes.
Rajapaksa said he took the best steps like trying to form an all-party government to counter the economic meltdown.
“I served my motherland to the best of my ability and I will continue to do so in the future,” he said in the letter.
He pointed out that within three months of his presidency in 2019, the whole world came to be hit by the COVID-19 pandemic.
“I took action to protect people from the pandemic despite being constrained by the already poor economic environment that prevailed at the time,” he said.
“During 2020 and 2021 I was compelled to order lockdowns and the foreign exchange situation deteriorated. In my view, I took the best course of action by suggesting an all-party or a national government to tackle the situation,” Rajapaksa said.
“I decided to resign as you indicated to me on July 9 the wish of the party leaders,” he said in the letter.
Rajapaksa, who arrived in Singapore with his wife and two bodyguards from the Maldives, no longer has legal immunity as a head of state.
The Singapore government has said that Rajapaksa has been allowed entry into the country on a “private visit”.
“He has not asked for asylum and neither has he been granted any asylum. Singapore generally does not grant requests for asylum,” said the spokesperson of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
Meanwhile, India on Saturday assured Sri Lanka that it will continue to support democracy, stability and economic recovery in the country, which is at a crucial juncture.
The assurance was given to Parliament Speaker Abeywardena by India’s High Commissioner Gopal Baglay when he called on the Sri Lankan leader.
During the meeting, High Commissioner Baglay “appreciated Parliament’s role in upholding democracy and Constitutional framework, especially at this crucial juncture”, the Indian High Commission tweeted.
“Conveyed that will continue to be supportive of democracy, stability and economic recovery in Sri Lanka,” the mission wrote.
Sri Lanka is facing its worst economic crisis in seven decades, with a severe foreign exchange shortage hampering the import of essentials, including food, fuel and medicines.
The economic crisis also sparked a political crisis in the country after a popular uprising against the government forced Rajapaksa to flee the country and resign as the President.
The island nation off the tip of southeast India needs about USD five billion in the next six months to cover basic necessities for its 22 million people, who have been struggling with long queues, worsening shortages and power cuts.