Sri Lanka begins voting to replace fugitive president

On Wednesday, Sri Lanka’s parliament began voting on the candidacy of a new president. Gotabaya Rajapaksawho fled abroad after his palace was stormed by angry protesters who are now preparing for crackdowns by his likely successor.

One by one, deputies entered the voting booths set up on the floor of the hall to choose one of three candidates to head the crisis-ridden country.

“Members are reminded that it is an offense to photograph ballot papers or show them to others,” Parliament Secretary General Dhammika Dasanayake told them. Previous elections were marred by accusations of corruption and vote buying.

The winner will lead a bankrupt country that is negotiating bailouts with the IMF and its 22 million people are starved for food, fuel and medicine.

Hundreds of heavily armed soldiers and police stood guard outside the parliament building, but no demonstrators were in sight.

Analysts say the leader is Ranil Wickremesinghe, a six-time former prime minister who became acting president after his predecessor stepped down, but protesters despise him as an ally of Rajapaksa.

Months of demonstrations due to an unprecedented economic crisis culminated with Rajapaksa announcing his resignation from Singapore last week, days after troops rescued the leader from his besieged home.

His departure hurts the once-powerful ruling clan that has dominated Sri Lankan politics for much of the past two decades, after his brothers also stepped down as prime minister and finance minister earlier this year.

Wickremesinghe, 73, is backed by the Rajapakshas SLPP, the largest bloc in the 225-member parliament, in the election.

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As acting president, Wickremesinghe extended a state of emergency that gives police and security forces sweeping powers, and last week he ordered troops to evict protesters from government buildings they occupied.

An opposition MP said Wickremesinghe’s tough stance on demonstrators was welcomed by MPs who had been subjected to mob violence and most SLPP legislators would support him.

“Ranil is becoming the law enforcement candidate,” Tamil MP Dharmalingam Sithadtan told AFP ahead of the vote.

Political scientist Kusal Perera agreed that Wickremesinghe had a “slight advantage” despite his own party winning just one seat in the August 2020 elections.

“Ranil has regained the acceptance of the urban middle class by restoring some supplies such as gas, and he has already cleared government buildings, showing his toughness,” Perera said.

The contest seemed close as lobbying intensified ahead of the vote. Two smaller parties declared their support for Wickremesinghe’s main rival, Dullas Alahapperuma, while the Tamil party, with two votes, said it was switching sides to support Wickremesinghe.

Observers believe that Wikremesinghe will be dealt with harshly if he wins, and the demonstrators, who also demanded his resignation, accusing him of defending the interests of the Rajapaks, will take to the streets.

Former President Mahinda Rajapaksa, older brother of deposed Gotabai and head of a clan that dominated Sri Lankan politics for years, remains in the country and party sources said he pressured SLP lawmakers to support Wickremesinghe.

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“De facto agreed government”

His main opponent in the vote was the SLPP dissident and former education minister Alakhapperum, a former opposition-backed journalist.

Alahapperuma promised this week to form “a de facto consensus government for the first time in our history.”

If he wins, the 63-year-old is expected to appoint opposition leader Sajit Premadasa as his prime minister. Premadasa’s late father, Ranasinghe, ruled the country with an iron fist in the 1980s when Alahapperuma was a human rights activist.

The third candidate was Anura Dissanayake, 53, leader of the left-wing People’s Liberation Front (PLF), whose coalition has three seats in parliament.

MPs rank candidates in order of preference: more than half of the votes are needed to win.

If no one passes the first preference threshold, the candidate with the least support shall be eliminated and their votes distributed according to the second preference.

The new leader will be in power until the end of Rajapaksa’s term, which will last until November 2024.

If Wikremesinghe is confirmed in the post, he is expected to name Minister of State Administration Dinesh Gunawarden, 73, a classmate and strong supporter of Rajapaksa, as the new prime minister.