“The president has officially resigned from office,” Parliament Speaker Mahinda Yapa Abeywardana told reporters on Friday, the day after the head of state sent his resignation letter by email.
Shortly after, Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe was sworn in before the President of the Supreme Court, thus officially becoming the country’s interim president, as provided for in the Constitution.
Parliament will meet on Wednesday to elect a successor to Mr. Rajapaksa from among the deputies. The new president will assume his functions until the end of the initial mandate, that is to say November 2024.
Mr. Rajapaksa fled his residence on Saturday, stormed by demonstrators accusing him of his mismanagement at a time when Sri Lanka is going through the most serious economic crisis in its history.
He managed to leave his country on Wednesday to go to the Maldives, where he flew to Singapore on Thursday, from where he sent his resignation letter.
He is the first head of state to step down since Sri Lanka opted for presidential rule in 1978.
– “A monumental victory” –
In the capital Colombo, placed under curfew, a small but jubilant crowd, some waving the national flag, danced and sang to express their joy in front of the secretariat of the presidency when the news of his resignation was announced.
“This is a monumental victory,” cried Harinda Fonseka, one of the protesters. “But this is only a first step.”
Many protesters see Mr. Wickremesinghe as an accomplice of Mr. Rajapaksa’s power and are calling for his resignation. They had invaded its offices on Wednesday, before releasing them at the same time as the other occupied public buildings.
But it looks like Mr Wickremesinghe is preparing to stand as a candidate to stay on as head of state after Wednesday. The SLPP, party of the Rajapaksa clan, majority in parliament, announced Friday that it would not present a presidential candidate in order to support Mr. Wickremesinghe.
If he is elected by the deputies, “then we will have lost the battle”, sighs Jude Fernando, an academic present in the demonstrations.
“Changing only leaders, changing heads, will not bring change,” he told AFP.
In an address to the country, Mr Wickremesinghe, who declared a state of emergency on Thursday, warned protesters that the police would continue to maintain order.
“We are committed to safeguarding democracy,” he said. “There is a big difference between protesters and rioters. Rioters will be dealt with according to law.”
He added that 24 soldiers were injured, two seriously, in the protesters’ attempted assault on Parliament.
The security forces now control the public buildings that the protesters occupied earlier this week, including the offices of the Prime Minister and the presidential palace.
Mr. Rajapaksa joined Singapore with his wife Ioma and their two bodyguards, on board a Saudia airline aircraft.
According to local press, he had initially demanded a private jet, refusing to fly with other passengers because of the hostile reception he received when he arrived in the Maldives on Wednesday.
– Conspired and insulted –
He had been jeered at and insulted when he left the airport and a demonstration against him had been organized in the capital Malé.
As president, Mr. Rajapaksa could not legally be arrested. It seems that he wanted to go abroad before resigning precisely to avoid a possible arrest.
Former Maldives President Mohamed Nasheed, who is believed to have played a behind-the-scenes role in helping him escape, said he feared he would be killed if he remained in Sri Lanka.
Singapore is not its final destination, the city-state having specified that Mr. Rajapaksa was there on a private visit and that “he did not request asylum”.
Sources close to Sri Lankan security believe he will seek to stay in Singapore for some time before moving to the United Arab Emirates.