Sri Lanka picks new leader aligned with ousted former president

Sri Lankan lawmakers on Wednesday chose six-time prime minister Ranil Wickremesinghe as president to succeed the ousted leader who fled the country, in a vote that risks reigniting political unrest in the troubled Asian island nation. from South.

Wickremesinghe said he had spent 45 years of his life in parliament and was happy that it gave him the honor of becoming president. “I don’t need to tell you what state our country is in. Now that the elections are over, we must end this division. We had 48 hours to remain divided but from now on I am ready to dialogue with you,” he said. , asking other political parties to work with him.

Former President Gotabaya Rajapaksa appointed Wickremesinghe as prime minister in May, hoping to bring stability to a country mired in its worst economic crisis in memory. Wickremesinghe became interim president after Rajapaksa fled the country last week and resigned via email.

Wickremesinghe, 73, is a seasoned politician with extensive experience in diplomatic and international affairs. But he is unpopular among voters who see him as a holdover from Rajapaksa’s government. Protesters outside the president’s residence chanted “Go home, Ranil” after his election.

The vote of 134 MPs put Wickremesinghe ahead of former government minister Dullas Alahapperuma, who received 82 votes. The Marxist candidate had three.

People watch parliamentary proceedings broadcast on a giant screen on the lawns of the presidential secretariat on Wednesday in Colombo, Sri Lanka. (Abhishek Chinnappa/Getty Images)

Wickremesinghe will serve the remainder of Rajapaksa’s term, which ends in 2024. Rajapaksa fled the country and resigned via email last week after angry protesters over the country’s economic collapse stormed his official residence and taken control of key public buildings.

As president, Wickremesinghe now has the discretion to appoint a new prime minister.

Presidents of Sri Lanka are normally elected by the public. Liability rests with parliament only if the post of president becomes vacant before the official end of a term.

This has only happened once before in Sri Lanka when then Prime Minister Dingiri Banda Wijetunga was chosen by Parliament without contest in 1993 after the assassination of former President Ranasinghe Premadasa, father of the current Leader of the Opposition.

Shortages of food, medicine, fuel

The economic crisis has left Sri Lanka’s 22 million people struggling with shortages of essentials, including medicine, fuel and food, as the government negotiates a bailout package with the International Monetary Fund. And the resulting political crisis has raised concerns about whether a new government will be enough to fix the economy and appease a public furious at the failures of its politicians.

Serving in a dual role as finance minister, Wickremesinghe led crucial IMF negotiations. He has delivered weekly addresses in parliament warning that the way out of the crisis will be difficult, while pledging to reshuffle a government that is increasingly concentrating power under the presidency.

Security personnel stand guard at the premises of the parliament building in Colombo as voting begins on Wednesday to elect the new president. (Adnan Abidi/Reuters)

The public, however, sees him as a holdover from the Rajapaksa government that led the country to economic disaster.

Only a few lawmakers had publicly said they would vote for Wickremesinghe given the hostility against him. Dozens of lawmakers loyal to Rajapaksa whose homes were torched by protesters in May reportedly backed Wickremesinghe on assurances that he would punish perpetrators harshly and maintain law and order.

The 225 deputies, including the president, had the right to vote by preferential ballot. Two MPs abstained and some ballots were declared invalid.