The president’s resignation from office marks a major victory for protesters, who for months have been calling for the removal of both Rajapaksa and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe.
Many in Sri Lanka blame Rajapaksa for the worsening situation in the country, with hyperinflation and shortages of basic commodities such as fuel and food affecting daily life.
But while Rajapaksa is out of the picture now, having landed in Singapore on Thursday, after earlier escaping to the Maldives via military plane, his close political ally Wickremesinghe is still firmly in place — and he was sworn in as acting president on Friday.
A senior government source told CNN that Rajapaksa appeared before the Sri Lanka High Commission in Singapore on Thursday to sign a letter of resignation before the High Commissioner.
The letter was then flown to Sri Lanka and delivered in person to Sri Lankan Parliament Speaker Mahinda Yapa Abeywardenena who officially announced that Rajapaksa had resigned.
The information is shedding new light on the delay of several hours between the news of Rajapaksa’s resignation, which was first emailed to the spokesperson on Thursday, and the official confirmation from Abiwardena on Friday.
The news sparked jubilant celebrations in Colombo on Thursday night, with crowds of cheering protesters lighting crackers and fireworks. People from all walks of life, young and old, took to the streets for a celebration that lasted until late into the night.
Many protesters said they were thrilled with the news, after months of protests and economic hardship. They said Rajapaksa’s departure represented a victory over government corruption and mismanagement.
Deshan Seneviratne, 45, said: “We had one goal – to get rid of this corrupt system completely. I am not someone who (usually) comes to the street. But I came because I was afraid for my son’s future… (for) the next generation.. I We fought for him.”
But others have stood by with Wickremesinghe – who is also widely unpopular and closely associated with Rajapaksa – in office now in presidential power.
Some protesters said they plan to continue demonstrating until Wickremesinghe also steps down – and the two men are held accountable for the country’s alleged economic mismanagement.
“We keep fighting. We fight until (Rajapaksa) is properly accused and some measures are taken… We are fighting as one nation until he gets the proper punishment for everything he did,” said Marian Malki. 29 who joined Thursday night’s festivities.
Wickmensinghe will remain acting president until parliament elects a new one, with lawmakers calling for a meeting on Saturday to start the process. No date has yet been set for the vote, but under the constitution Wickremesinghe will only be allowed to hold office for a maximum of 30 days.
Once elected, the new president will serve the remaining two years initially allotted for Rajapaksa’s term of office.
Friday’s announcement marks the end of a chaotic week, as it has thrown the future of Sri Lanka’s leadership into uncertainty after Rajapaksa fled without formally submitting his resignation. For about two days, it was not clear whether he would agree to resign. What will happen if he refuses it; And even his whereabouts sometimes. Tensions escalated, with authorities imposing a curfew and firing tear gas to disperse protesters.
But even with Rajapaksa officially out of office and a new president soon selected, greater problems loom on the horizon for the economically battered country, as it grapples with its worst downturn in seven decades.
The financial crisis
Largely peaceful protests have escalated in Sri Lanka since March, when public anger erupted in the streets over rising food costs, fuel shortages and power cuts as the country struggled to pay off debts.
But public outrage erupted last weekend, when protesters occupied the residences of both Rajapaksa and Wickremesinghe.
Rajapaksa flew to the Maldives – where the former president has long ties to the Rajapaksa dynasty – but left more than 24 hours later on a “Saudi flight” to Singapore on Thursday, according to a high-ranking security source in Colombo.
Singapore said Rajapaska had been allowed into the country on a “special visit” but had not requested or granted asylum.
Shortly after his arrival, Abiwardeneina, the Speaker of Parliament, announced that Rajapaksa had submitted his resignation.
But experts say questions remain about Sri Lanka’s future. If anything, political turmoil and lack of clarity are causing trouble for the country’s economic recovery, said Ganechan Wenaraja, senior researcher at the British think tank, ODI Global.
“The thing I notice is that Sri Lanka is a chaotic democracy,” he said. “In this context, today’s debates in Parliament took a bit long. It shows the politically non-functional nature of our politics today.”
“This political instability can really hold back the economy,” he added. “It can scare off investors, it can scare off tourists, it can scare off internal remittances and even aid. I’m afraid the economic crisis will take a long time to settle and people will suffer more unless Parliament takes action together.”
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