The President’s departure from office marks a major victory for the protesters, who for months have demanded the removal of both Rajapaksa and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe.
Many in Sri Lanka blame Rajapaksa for the country’s worsening situation, with runaway inflation and shortages of basic goods such as fuel and food impacting everyday life.
But while Rajapaksa is now out of the picture, having landed in Singapore on Thursday, following an earlier escape to the Maldives via military jet, his close political ally Wickremesinghe remains firmly in place — and was sworn in as Acting President Friday.
A senior government source told CNN that Rajapaksa appeared before Sri Lanka’s high commission in Singapore on Thursday to sign a physical letter of resignation in front of the high commissioner.
The letter was then taken to Sri Lanka by plane and delivered in person to Sri Lanka’s parliamentary speaker Mahinda Yapa Abeywardenena who formally announced that Rajapaksa had stepped down.
The information sheds new light on the several hours of delay between the news of Rajapaksa’s resignation, first sent by email to the speaker Thursday, and the official confirmation from Abeywardenena on Friday.
The news sparked jubilant celebrations in Colombo on Thursday night, with crowds of cheering protesters lighting firecrackers and fireworks. People from all walks of life, young and old, spilled onto the streets for the celebrations, which lasted late into the night.
Many of those on the streets said they were overjoyed with the news, after months of protests and economic hardship. Rajapaksa’s departure represented a victory against government corruption and mismanagement, they said.
“We had one aim — to get rid of this absolutely corrupt regime,” said Dishan Seneviratne, 45. “I am not a person who (usually) comes to the street. But I came because I was scared for my son’s future … (for) the next generation. We have fought for it.”
But others remained on edge with Wickremesinghe — also widely unpopular and closely tied to Rajapaksa — now in office holding presidential power.
Some protesters have said they plan to continue demonstrating until Wickremesinghe has also stepped down — and both men are held accountable for the country’s alleged economic mismanagement.
“We keep on fighting. We are fighting until (Rajapaksa) is properly accused and until some action (is taken) … we are fighting as one nation until he is getting proper punishment for whatever he has done,” said Mariyan Malki, 29, who joined the celebrations Thursday night.
Wickmenesinghe will remain Acting President until Parliament elects a new President, with lawmakers summoned to meet on Saturday to start the process. No date has been set yet for the vote, but under the constitution Wickremesinghe will only be allowed to hold the office for a maximum of 30 days.
Once elected, the new President will serve the remaining two years initially allocated for Rajapaksa’s term.
Friday’s announcement marks the end of a chaotic week, with the future of Sri Lanka’s leadership thrown into uncertainty after Rajapaksa fled without formally resigning. For almost two days, it was unclear whether he would agree to resign; what would happen if he refused to do so; and even his whereabouts at times. Tensions ran high, with authorities imposing curfews and firing tear gas to disperse protesters.
But even with Rajapaksa officially out of office and a new president soon to be chosen, larger problems loom for the economically ravaged country, as it grapples with its worst downturn in seven decades.
The financial crisis
Largely peaceful protests have been escalating in Sri Lanka since March, when public anger erupted on the streets over rising food costs, fuel shortages and electricity cuts as the country struggled to make debt repayments.
But public anger erupted last weekend, when demonstrators occupied the residences of both Rajapaksa and Wickremesinghe.
Rajapaksa headed to Maldives — where the former President has long held ties with the Rajapaksa dynasty — but left just over 24 hours later, boarding a “Saudi flight” to Singapore on Thursday, according to a high-ranking security source in Colombo.
Singapore said Rajapaska had been allowed to enter the country on a “private visit” but had not asked for or been granted asylum.
Shortly after his arrival, Abeywardenena, the Parliament speaker, announced that Rajapaksa had tendered his resignation.
But experts say questions remain about Sri Lanka’s future. If anything, the political upheaval and lack of clarity spells trouble for the country’s economic recovery, said Ganeshan Wignaraja, senior research associate at the British think tank, ODI Global.
“The thing that I observe is that Sri Lanka is a messy democracy,” he said. “And in this context, today’s discussions in parliament have taken a little bit too long. And it shows the political dysfunctional nature of our politics today.”
“This political instability can really set back the economy,” he added. “It can scare away investors, it can scare away tourists, it can scare away inward remittances and even aid. I fear the economic crisis will take a long time to sort out and the people will suffer more unless Parliament gets its act together.”