November 29, 2023

Credit…Dinuka Liyanawatte/Reuters

COLOMBO, Sri Lanka — President Gotabaya Rajapaksa of Sri Lanka fled the country on Wednesday after months of demonstrations demanding that he leave office culminated with protesters storming his official residence.

Mr. Rajapaksa left on an Air Force plane to the Maldives at about 2 a.m. local time, said Colonel Nalin Herath, a spokesman for Sri Lanka’s defense ministry. Three immigration officials, who declined to be named given the political situation, confirmed his departure as well.

The island nation is experiencing the worst economic crisis in its history, exacerbated by government mismanagement and missteps. Protests over a severe shortage of food, medicine and fuel have lasted for months.

Mr. Rajapaksa went into hiding after protesters took over his office and residence. He had told allies he was resigning on Wednesday.

The country’s prime minister, Ranil Wickremesinghe, had on Saturday suggested he would also step down, but he appeared to be staying on. Protesters had been demanding his resignation as well.

As Mr. Rajapaksa’s departure from the country was confirmed, Mahinda Yapa Abeywardena, the speaker of the parliament, said in a phone interview that he still had not received the president’s letter of resignation, which would make the end of his presidency official.

Mr. Rajapaksa, 73, a career military officer, would be the last member of his family’s dynasty to leave government. In May, Mahinda Rajapaksa, the prime minister and the president’s elder brother, was forced from office by protests. The finance minister, Basil Rajapaksa, another brother, and several other members of the family were also removed from their posts.

The fuel shortage has upended daily life in Sri Lanka for months, with the country essentially bankrupt and out of foreign-currency reserves for essential imports. The prices of food and medicine have soared, power cuts have become the norm and public transportation is often suspended to shore up fuel supplies.

The transition to a new government now puts the spotlight on a parliament that has long frustrated the island nation of 22 million, with lawmakers and political parties engaging in protracted and messy fights over positions of power. Complicating matters, the ruling party loyal to the Rajapaksas still maintain a majority of the seats.

Sri Lanka’s constitution is clear on succession. In the event of that a president resigns, the prime minister takes on his duties in an interim capacity. The proceedings then turn to Parliament, where lawmakers vote for a new president from their midst to complete the term. Mr. Rajapaksa’s term had two years to go.

Still, the nation’s political leaders remain unpopular and many are associated with the Rajapaksa family. Protesters have been adamant that a new leader must be appointed who is free of those ties. On Wednesday morning, as demonstrators processed the president’s departure, it was unclear whether that would be enough to end months of protests.

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