COLOMBO, Sri Lanka — Sri Lanka plunged deeper into a political crisis on Wednesday as the president fled the nation and protesters demanded the resignation of the prime minister, making it hard to determine who was leading the nearly bankrupt nation.
President Gotabaya Rajapaksa landed in the Maldives early on Wednesday. And the prime minister, Ranil Wickremesinghe, was expected to be sworn in once Mr. Rajapaksa officially resigned, his spokesman said.
But protesters, who had called for Mr. Wickremesinghe to also step down appeared unhappy that he had yet to resign and could instead become interim president. They marched to his office, where police and military fired tear gas to try to disperse them. The crowd kept growing as the afternoon sun hung over Colombo, the capital.
The president’s sudden departure threw the capital into deeper turmoil over what is likely to be a protracted political transition. The nation has been wracked by demonstrations for months as Mr. Rajapaksa and his cabinet, once dominated by family members, led the nation through a series of missteps.
A crisis that began with the pandemic decimating the tourism industry, worsened as the government burned through foreign currency reserves that led to fuel shortages and skyrocketing prices for food and other essential goods. Whoever takes over will need to quickly gain the confidence of fed-up Sri Lankans.
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.
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.
He told allies he was resigning on Wednesday but it has not been made 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.