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Ranil Wickremesinghe in a file photo. Image Credit: REUTERS

COLOMBO, Sri Lanka: Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe was sworn in as Sri Lanka’s interim president on Friday until Parliament elects a successor to Gotabaya Rajapaksa, who resigned after mass protests over the country’s economic collapse forced him from office.

The speaker of Sri Lanka’s Parliament said Rajapaksa resigned as president effective Thursday and lawmakers will convene on Saturday to choose a new leader. Their choice would serve out the remainder of Rajapaksa’s term ending in 2024, said Speaker Mahinda Yapa Abeywardana. He expects the process to be done in seven days.

That person could potentially appoint a new prime minister, who would then have to be approved by Parliament. With Rajapaksa done, pressure on Wickremesinghe was rising.

Opponents had viewed his appointment as prime minister in May as alleviating pressure on Rajapaksa to resign. He became the acting president when Rajapaksa fled Sri Lanka on Wednesday.

Rajapaksa arrived in Singapore on Thursday and his resignation became official on that date. The prime minister’s office said Wickremesinghe was sworn in on Friday as interim president before Chief Justice Jayantha Jayasuriya.

Sri Lanka has run short of money to pay for imports of basic necessities such as food, fertilizer, medicine and fuel, to the despair of its 22 million people. Its rapid economic decline has been all the more shocking because, before this crisis, the economy had been expanding, with a growing, comfortable middle class.

Protesters cooked and distributed milk rice — a food Sri Lankans enjoy to celebrate victories — after Rajapaksa’s resignation. At the main protest site in front of the president’s office in Colombo, people welcomed his resignation but insisted Wickremesinghe also should step aside.

'Happy, he finally left'

“I am happy that Gotabaya has finally left. He should have resigned earlier, without causing much problems,’’ Velauynatha Pillai, 73, a retired bank employee, said as patriotic songs were blaring from loudspeakers.

But he added that “Ranil is a supporter of Gotabaya and other Rajapaksas. He was helping them. He also must go.’’

Protesters who had occupied government buildings retreated Thursday, restoring a tenuous calm in the capital, Colombo. But with the political opposition in Parliament fractured, a solution to Sri Lanka’s many woes seemed no closer.

The nation is seeking help from the International Monetary Fund and other creditors, but its finances are so poor that even obtaining a bailout has proven difficult, Wickremesinghe recently said.

The country remains a powder keg, and the military warned on Thursday that it had powers to respond in case of chaos — a message some found concerning.

Abeywardana promised a swift and transparent process for electing a new president.

“I request the honourable and loving citizens of this country to create a peaceful atmosphere in order to implement the proper Parliamentary democratic process and enable all members of Parliament to participate in the meetings and function freely and conscientiously,” he said on Friday.

The protesters accuse Rajapaksa and his powerful political family of siphoning money from government coffers for years and of hastening the country’s collapse by mismanaging the economy. The family has denied the corruption allegations, but Rajapaksa acknowledged that some of his policies contributed to Sri Lanka’s meltdown.

Maduka Iroshan, 26, a university student and protester, said he was “thrilled” that Rajapaksa had quit, because he “ruined the dreams of the young generation.’’

Months of protests reached a frenzied peak over the weekend when demonstrators stormed the president’s home and office and Wickremesinghe’s official residence. On Wednesday, they seized his office.