As Sri Lanka waited for President Gotabaya Rajapaksa to resign as promised on Wednesday (July 13), news came in that he had fled the country in the middle of the night, flying to the Maldives in a military aircraft. For the last few days, hectic efforts have been ongoing in various political camps to lay claim to the President’s office. Meanwhile, GoGotaGo protesters are readying to ensure that no one in the current dispensation is able to stay on.
In anticipation of more protests, and in view of reported demands by some GoGotaGo protesters that they should be allowed to address the nation live on state television, the Sri Lankan Army was on Tuesday (July 12) evening deployed at the offices of the Sri Lanka Rupavahini Corporation, the state broadcaster.
Constitutionally, what is supposed to happen now?
Under the provisions for succession laid down in Sri Lanka’s Constitution, when the President’s office falls vacant, it has to be the Prime Minister who is sworn in as interim President until Parliament elects a candidate from among its members. The Speaker of Parliament has said that this election will take place on July 20.
This election has to take place within 30 days of the President’s office falling vacant, and the candidate will need an absolute majority in Parliament.
In recent days, Ranil Wickremesinghe, who was appointed to the post of PM by President Gotabaya in the second week of May to help pull Sri Lanka out of its economic meltdown, has been targeted by the protesters as a “friend” of the Rajapaksas who is trying to save them.
Wickremesinghe was also criticised by opposition parties for “failing” to resolve the food and fuel shortages in the country — even though the PM did warn in his first speech to Parliament that the situation would get far worse before it got better.
So will it be Wickremesinghe who will succeed Gotabaya?
Wickremesinghe himself had tweeted on July 9 that he would resign as PM to make way for an all-party government. But he had not actually resigned until Tuesday evening.
Under the Constitution, if the office of the Prime Minister too is vacant, the Speaker of Parliament becomes the acting President. But if Wickremesinghe is still PM when — and if — Rajapaksa actually resigns, he will be President at least until Parliament elects someone else to the post.
Wickremsinghe said in a statement on Monday that “no one can go beyond the Constitution, and no one can force Parliament to do things from outside. I am here to safeguard the Constitution, one must listen to the people but should act in accordance with the constitution. Sri Lanka needs an all-party government. We have to work for it.”
Some Sri Lankan media organisations have reported that “a majority” of the Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP) — the Rajapaksa family party — supports Wickremesinghe’s transition to the President’s office, indicating that he too would be a candidate in the election. Wickremesinghe himself is a nominated MP, and his United National Party (UNP) has no elected members in Parliament.
Who else has a chance at becoming President?
Sajith Premadasa, a former member of Wickremesinghe’s UNP who now heads his own party, the Samagi Jana Balawegaya (SJB), has put himself forward as the opposition’s candidate for “interim” President, and has declared that he is ready to lead the country and find a way out of the present economic and political crisis. The SJB has 50 members in the House of 225.
It is unclear if Premadasa is preparing to challenge the existing constitutional arrangement under which the Prime Minister gets sworn in as President immediately to fill the vacancy arising from Gotabaya’s resignation, or if his candidature is for the election by Parliament due thereafter.
Has the office of the President ever fallen vacant in this way earlier?
This is the second time in the 44 years of Sri Lanka’s executive presidency that the office will fall vacant midstream. Sri Lanka’s first executive President was J R Jayewardene, who brought in the system through a new Constitution in 1978. He remained President until 1989. He was succeeded by his UNP colleague Ranasinghe Premadasa, the father of the SJB leader Sajith Premadasa.
It was when Premadasa was assassinated by a LTTE suicide bomber during a May Day rally in 1993 that the office fell vacant for the first time. The Prime Minister at the time, Dingiri Bandara Wijetunga, became acting President until Parliament convened to elect a successor to the slain Premadasa.
On May 7, 1993, Wijetunga was sworn in as the third executive President after being elected unanimously by Parliament to complete the remainder of Premadasa’s term. He called an early Parliamentary election in 1994, which the opposition SLFP won. After that there has been no presidential vacancy in the middle of a term.
Chandrika Kumaratunga became the Prime Minister, and despite his vast powers, Wijetunga let her run the government. Later that year, he called a presidential election in which he did not contest. The UNP candidate Gamini Dissanayake was assassinated during the campaign, and his wife Sirima took his place. However, Kumaratunga who was the SLFP candidate, won a decisive victory with over 62 per cent of the votes.
Kumaratunga was re-elected for a second term. She was succeeded by fellow SLFPer Mahinda Rajapaksa for two terms. Maithiripala Sirisena won the presidential election of January 2015, and was succeeded by Gotabaya Rajapaksa in November 2019.