What is happening in Sri Lanka and why did President Gotabaya Rajapaksa flee?

The president landed in the Maldives after escaping with his wife and two bodyguards

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Sri Lankan parliament members will elect a new president within a week, the speaker said, after he confirmed leader Gotabaya Rajapaksa had officially resigned.

The resignation, which was emailed from Singapore where Mr Rajapaksa, his wife Ioma and their two bodyguards landed on Thursday, has been accepted, speaker Mahinda Yapa Abeywardana was cited by AFP as saying.

The opposition parties are attempting to put together an all-party government and pick candidates who can take over from Mr Rajapaksa and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe.

Unforgettable scenes

Last week the world saw unforgettable scenes, as tens of thousands of Sri Lankan protesters took to the streets in anger over the state of their country.

Their frustration over the country's devastating economic crisis was directed at the country’s political elite.

Demonstrators called for the resignation of both Mr Rajapaksa and Mr Wickremesinghe.

But the protests themselves aren’t new, with the latest wave having started more than 100 days ago. But the most recent unrest persuaded the president and the prime minister to announce they were willing to step down.

Why is Sri Lanka in crisis?

Sri Lanka, with its lush greenery and natural landscapes, is a prime tourist destination.

But during the pandemic, that source of revenue took a big hit as people remained locked indoors and travel was restricted.

Then, remittances from Sri Lankans living abroad began to wane.

Moves by Mr Rajapaksa to introduce tax cuts also hit government finances, affecting imports of fuel, food and medicines.

Lengthy power cuts became frequent and acute food and fuel shortages began to take their toll.

Long queues started forming at shops selling cooking gas and inflation hit almost 55 per cent in June.

All the while, people on the island of 22 million, grew angry and blamed the country’s leaders for the financial turmoil.

The final straw came last month, when the government said it had almost run out of fuel and stopped all sale of petrol except for “essential services”.

Soon after, protesters stormed the president’s home in Colombo and other key government buildings.

Who is president Gotabaya Rajapaksa?

The eighth president of Sri Lanka, Mr Rajapaksa, 73, has a military background and took office only in 2019.

He was a dual US citizen up until he became president.

Mr Rajapaksa ran his campaign based on a nationalistic agenda, with economic and security developments at the fore.

Assisting his win, perhaps, was his relative lack of a political career, making him Sri Lanka’s first president with a military background.

However, Mr Rajapaksa‘s family is no stranger to politics with a father who served as MP and Cabinet Minister of Agriculture and Land.

Gotabaya's brother, Mahinda Rajapaksa, served as president between 2005 and 20015 .

After assuming office in 2019, some of Gotabaya's first moves as president included consolidation of power and appointing his brother Mahinda as prime minister.

During his short stint, the country declared bankruptcy, defaulting on its debts for the first time since it gained independence in 1948.

Why is he fleeing?

President Gotabaya Rajapaksa left the country on Wednesday, with his wife and two security officials on board a military aircraft in the early hours of Wednesday, the Sri Lanka Air Force said.

His escape came hours before Mr Rajapaksa was due to hand in his resignation. The Ministry of Defence said the couple were headed to the Maldives.

A large crowd of protesters stormed his residence, so it is likely that the president feared for his safety, which is why he fled.

What happens next?

If the president does step down, the parliament would be responsible for electing a temporary leader.

The constitution and Presidential Elections Act of 1981 stipulate that that person should be a member of parliament and that a vote must take place within a month from the date that the post of president was vacated, constitutional lawyer Gehan Gunatilleke wrote in the Himal Southasian magazine.

“Once the president resigns, Parliament must be summoned to meet within three days of the vacancy,” Mr Gunatilleke said.

”When Parliament meets, the secretary general must fix a deadline to receive nominations for the office of president. The deadline for nominations must be a date not earlier than four hours and not later than seven days from Parliament’s initial meeting.”

After a vote, the new president would serve what ever remains from the current presidential term, which in the case of president Rajapaksa, ends in 2024.

Updated: July 15, 2022, 5:29 AM