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Sri Lanka eyes Rajapaksa successor: 5 things about life after Gota

Experts Warn Next Leader Faces 'mammoth Task' But Must Restore Stability

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Dawn breaks over Sri Lanka's blockaded presidential secretariat in Colombo on the morning of July 15, when President Gotabaya Rajapaksa's long-awaited resignation became official.   © AP

COLOMBO -- Once the most feared man in Sri Lanka, Gotabaya Rajapaksa has officially stepped down as president after intense protests over the country's economic crisis.

The man they call "The Terminator" fled to the Maldives in the dead of night on Wednesday, before flying to Singapore on Thursday, where he tendered his resignation. The speaker of parliament on Friday announced he had accepted the letter, formally ushering Sri Lanka into a post-Rajapaksa era.

How did the Indian Ocean island nation get here? What lies ahead for its crippled economy?

Here are five things to know.

After months of unrest, how did Rajapaksa's downfall unfold?

Since April 9, Sri Lankans have been protesting at the presidential secretariat in Colombo, in what has come to be known as the #GoHomeGota movement. They demanded that Rajapaksa resign for mismanaging the country's economy, amid severe shortages of fuel, daily power cuts and soaring living costs.

Rajapaksa, the 73-year-old younger brother of former President and Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa, was not always so unpopular. He swept to power in the 2019 general election, receiving 6.9 million votes in the country of about 22 million, mainly thanks to supporters from the majority Sinhala Buddhist community. But with the economy spiraling out of control, foreign reserves drying up and many unable to afford three meals a day, he soon lost much of his backing.

The situation came to a head on July 9. Protesters staged their biggest show of force yet, despite Rajapaksa's attempts to thwart them with a curfew and restrictions on distribution of scarce fuel resources. Thousands traveled to the Galle Face area in Colombo by any means they could -- container trucks, trains, or simply on foot. Outside the presidential secretariat they chanted, "You tried to stop us, but we are here."

The protesters broke through barricades and stormed the president's official residence and secretariat. Rajapaksa was not seen in public again -- he went into hiding, announced via the speaker that he would resign, and jetted off into exile. His final destination remains unclear.

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The Saudia plane believed to have carried Rajapaksa from the Maldives to Singapore touches down at Changi Airport on July 14.   © Straits Times via Reuters

What happens now?

After Parliament Speaker Mahinda Yapa Abeywardena announced Rajapaksa's resignation, Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe was sworn in as acting president on Friday. It was a role he had already been handed by the fleeing president, much to the chagrin of protesters who also want Wickremesinghe out.

Suren Fernando, a lawyer, explained to Nikkei Asia that parliament will soon begin the process of electing a member to serve as president for the remainder of Rajapaksa's term, until 2024.

Under the constitution, a new president must be appointed by parliament within 30 days. Speaker Abeywardena said on Friday that nominations for the vacant presidency will be called next Tuesday, followed by an election on Wednesday.

One factor to consider is that Rajapaksa's Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP), or People's Front, still holds a majority in parliament. But Fernando stressed that the people have clearly rejected both Rajapaksa and the SLPP government.

"Neither enjoy the confidence of the people," he said. "Thus, they must step aside and allow an opposition-led coalition to govern for a limited period, and proceed to elections at the earliest, to secure a fresh mandate."

Who are the possible candidates?

There are several contenders for the country's most powerful seat. Sajith Premadasa, 55, is widely considered to be the favorite. He holds a bachelor's degree from the London School of Economics and is the son of ex-President Ranasinghe Premadasa, who was in power from 1989 to 1993 before his assassination in a suicide bombing.

Despite their deep unpopularity, the SLPP is expected to field 63-year-old Dullas Alahapperuma, a journalist by profession who held several ministerial portfolios in the Rajapaksa government. He holds an honorary doctorate of education from Plymouth University.

The third likely candidate is 53-year-old Anura Kumara Dissanayake, the leader of the Marxist National People's Power Party & People's Liberation Front (JVP).

Wickremesinghe has also been floated as a possibility. But the acting president is the lone MP representing the United National Party in the 225-member legislature. He only has the seat thanks to a bonus system, after he lost in the last parliamentary election.

The fact that Rajapaksa supported Wickremesinghe and appointed him prime minister may be the only clout he has with the SLPP.

What does Rajapaksa's exit mean for the economic crisis?

Gotabaya hails from the most powerful political family in Sri Lanka. His eldest brother, Mahinda, was considered one of the country's most successful presidents. His other brothers, Basil and Chamal, and nephews Namal and Shasheendra, have all held powerful positions in the government. But one by one, the economic crisis has forced all the Rajapaksas to resign.

With the resignation of the president, the most important thing now for Sri Lanka is stability, according to Sarinda Perera, a political analyst.

"But for stability, there must be legitimacy," he said. "If people strongly reject a government, that endangers stability, which is required to steer the economy. Whoever is in government, it's imperative that they have legitimacy, and that they then adopt a viable debt sustainability framework to take to the [International Monetary Fund]."

Sri Lanka has been in talks on a bailout from the IMF, and was said to be making "progress" shortly before Rajapaksa was forced out. An IMF spokesperson told media on Thursday, "We hope for a resolution of the current situation that would allow for our resumption of a dialogue on an IMF-supported program."

Gareth Leather, senior Asia economist at Capital Economics, wrote in a note: "Without support from the IMF, Sri Lanka would need to find other ways to generate the foreign exchange needed to buy essentials such as food, medicine and fuel. One option would be to request more aid from countries which have a big stake in Sri Lanka's future, namely China and India."

Perera stressed that "given domestic and external environments are both strongly negative for Sri Lanka, whoever is in office faces a mammoth task."

If this is the end for the Rajapaksas, what will be their legacy?

For many in Sri Lanka, Mahinda Rajapaksa was not just a leader. Some called him a "king," as he presided over the end of the country's long and brutal civil war with Tamil rebels in 2009.

Gotabaya, who was the defense secretary during Mahinda's presidency, was also widely credited with ending the conflict. But despite many in the south identifying the brothers as heroes and saviors, they are dogged by allegations that they were responsible for war crimes committed during the final phase of fighting.

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Rajapaska, pictured in 2019, won that year's presidential election. But many citizens turned on him as the country's economy took a nosedive.   © Reuters

Human Rights Watch wrote last year that Mahinda and Gotabaya "oversaw armed forces that repeatedly and indiscriminately shelled civilians and summarily executed captured [Tamil] fighters." HRW also noted allegations that critics, including journalists and activists, "were murdered, tortured, and 'disappeared' in white vans, abuses that continued even after the fighting ended."

No one has been held accountable.

The Mahinda-Gotabaya duo's unceremonious exit does not bode well for the political prospects of Mahinda's eldest son, Namal, who was apparently being groomed for the presidency. Yet the analyst Perera cautioned in a tweet that Sri Lanka "has a history of not learning from its history."

Many believe that if and when the crisis settles down, many citizens who now say "no more Rajapaksas" may give the clan another look.