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Sri Lanka begins choosing leader to replace exiled ex-president Rajapaksa

An army soldier stands guard outside the parliament building in Colombo, Sri Lanka, Saturday, July 16, 2022. Sri Lankan lawmakers met Saturday to begin choosing a new leader to serve the rest of the term abandoned by the president who fled abroad and resigned after mass protests over the country’s economic collapse. (AP Photo/Rafiq Maqbool)
An army soldier stands guard outside the parliament building in Colombo, Sri Lanka, Saturday, July 16, 2022. Sri Lankan lawmakers met Saturday to begin choosing a new leader to serve the rest of the term abandoned by the president who fled abroad and resigned after mass protests over the country’s economic collapse. (AP Photo/Rafiq Maqbool)

Sri Lankan legislators have met to begin choosing a new leader to serve the rest of the term abandoned by the president who fled abroad and resigned after mass protests over the country’s economic collapse.

A day earlier, Sri Lanka’s prime minister was sworn in as interim president until parliament elects a successor to Gotabaya Rajapaksa, whose term ends in 2024.

Parliament speaker Mahinda Yapa Abeywardana promised a swift and transparent political process that should be done within a week.

The new president could appoint a new prime minister, who would then have to be approved by Parliament.

Parliament’s secretary general, Dhammika Dasanayake, said during a brief session on Saturday that nominations for the election of the new president will be heard on Tuesday and if there is more than one candidate, the legislators will vote on Wednesday.

Sri Lanka
Sri Lanka’s parliament speaker Mahinda Yapa Abeywardana speaks during a press conference in Colombo (Rafiq Maqbool/AP)

He also read out Mr Rajapaksa’s resignation letter in parliament.

The letter said he was stepping down following requests by the people of Sri Lanka and political party leaders. He noted that the economic crisis was looming even when he took office in 2019 and was aggravated by frequent lockdowns during the coronavirus pandemic.

Security around the parliament building in the capital Colombo was heightened on Saturday with masked soldiers on guard and roads near the building closed to the public.

Sri Lanka
Soldiers stand guard (Eranga Jayawardena/AP)

In a televised statement on Friday, Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe said he would initiate steps to change the constitution to curb presidential powers and strengthen parliament, restore law and order and take legal action against “insurgents”.

He said true protesters would not have become involved in clashes on Wednesday night near parliament, where many soldiers were reportedly injured.

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

Mr Wickremesinghe became acting president after Mr Rajapaksa fled Sri Lanka on Wednesday and flew first to the Maldives and then to Singapore. Many protesters insisted that Mr Wickremesinghe too should step aside.

Sri Lanka’s opposition leader, who is seeking the presidency, vowed to “listen to the people” and to hold Mr Rajapaksa accountable.

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

AP Interview Sri Lanka Opposition Leader
Sri Lankan opposition leader Sajith Premadasa (Eranga Jayawardena/AP)

“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,” Mr Premadasa said.

Sri Lanka has run short of money to pay for imports of basic necessities such as food, fertiliser, 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.

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

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, Mr Wickremesinghe recently said.

The protesters accuse Mr Rajapaksa and his powerful political family of siphoning money from government coffers and hastening the country’s collapse by mismanaging the economy.

The family has denied the corruption allegations, but Mr Rajapaksa acknowledged some of his policies contributed to Sri Lanka’s meltdown.