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Sri Lanka's Wickremesinghe elected president after Rajapaksa exit

Security Tight As Six-time PM Has Already Faced Heavy Pressure From Protesters

Sri Lanka's Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe has won a parliament vote to become the country's president.   © AP

COLOMBO -- Sri Lanka's parliament on Wednesday chose six-time Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe as the troubled country's new president, risking further unrest as he remains deeply unpopular with the masses.

Lawmakers elected Wickremesinghe, who was already acting president and is perceived as close to the long-dominant Rajapaksa family, over Dullas Alahapperuma, a journalist-turned-politician who became a dissident within the ruling Sri Lanka Podujana Party (SLPP).

"Our country is facing massive challenges and we have to work on a new strategy to fulfill the aspirations of the people," Wickremesinghe said after winning, while extending an invitation to all political parties in parliament to work together for the country. He is due to be sworn in at parliament on Thursday.

But Wickremesinghe's election was seen as a possible trigger for reigniting protests that drove his predecessor, President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, to flee into exile overseas and resign. Demonstrators stormed Wickremesinghe's office in Colombo only a week ago, demanding that he too step down.

On Wednesday afternoon after the vote, a group of protesters began to gather outside the presidential secretariat chanting "Ranil Go Home" -- echoing the rallying cry of "Gota Go Home" they had used before.

Many believe the new president has helped protect the Rajapaksas. The clan is accused of corruption -- which they deny -- and serious mismanagement that plunged the country of about 22 million into its worst economic crisis.

Nevertheless, Wickremesinghe on Wednesday received 134 votes in the 225-seat chamber. His rival Alahapperuma earned just 82 despite apparently having the support of some ruling party members and almost all the opposition parties, including the main one, Samagi Jana Balawegaya (SJB).

A third candidate, Anura Kumara Dissanayaka from the Marxist-led Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) party, garnered only 3 votes. The total number of votes cast was 223, of which four were rejected. Two MPs abstained.

Protesters prepare to burn an effigy of Ranil Wickremesinghe on July 19 in Colombo, the day before his election as Sri Lanka's president.   © Reuters

The election proceedings began shortly after 10:00 a.m., local time, under heavy security in Colombo and with television stations broadcasting a live feed.

Opening the parliament session, Speaker Mahinda Yapa Abeywardena said that not only was the country watching, but the eyes of the entire world were on the legislature. He issued a stern warning to lawmakers not to take pictures of their secret ballots, after reports that some party leaders had asked members to show proof that they had in fact voted for leadership's preferred candidate.

The Rajapaksa-backed SLPP holds a majority in parliament with 145 seats. But its members were broken into two factions, with one supporting Alahapperuma and the other Wickremesinghe. The opposition SJB has 54 seats. But due to the secret ballot system, no one knows exactly how the votes were divided.

Born in March 1949, Wickremesinghe hails from an affluent family and is a lawyer by profession. He became active in politics in the mid-1970s with the United National Party, and was first elected to parliament in 1977. In 1994, Wickremesinghe married his wife Maitree, a Sri Lankan academic and professor of English. That same year, he became leader of the UNP; he has drawn criticism for keeping a tight grip on the top post ever since.

Now Wickremesinghe is expected to see out the term of Rajapaksa, which runs until 2024. But as shown by the once-powerful former president's dramatic getaway last week -- first to the Maldives and then on to Singapore -- the country remains in a volatile state.

Some Sri Lankans expressed dejection at the outcome.

Prasad Welikumbura, a political activist who has been part of the protest movement, said that "by electing Ranil Wickremesinghe, it is obvious that the aspirations and demands of the people have been outrightly ignored by the MPs who voted in favor of him."

Welikumbura told Nikkei Asia that it was bizarre to see a man who did not even win his own constituency in the 2020 parliamentary election suddenly become president. Although Wickremesinghe lost his seat in Colombo, he was able to enter parliament through a bonus system.

"This is not democracy," Welikumbura said. "Maybe this is in line with the constitution, but this is not democracy and we reject this."

Policemen stand guard outside Sri Lanka's parliament during the presidential vote on July 20.   © Reuters

Apparently fearing renewed turmoil in the streets in light of the vote, a court quickly issued an order to prevent groups from assembling within a 50-meter radius of the S. W. R. D. Bandaranaike Statue at Galle Face in Colombo -- the hot spot for protests since April. The presidential secretariat is also located in the area, and the protesters who gathered there appeared undeterred.

Following the court order, Ambika Satkunanathan, a former commissioner of the Human Rights Commission of Sri Lanka, tweeted, "And it begins." She expressed concern that a state of emergency might be used to crack down on dissent, possibly by force. In his first move as acting president last Friday, Wickremesinghe declared an emergency.

"Stability is achieved [through] building a strong social contract between state [and] citizen and by gaining public trust," Satkunanathan wrote.

Thyagi Ruwanpathirana, an Amnesty International researcher based in Colombo, said the new president-elect already made concerning statements on security last week. "He ordered the military to 'do whatever is necessary to restore order,' essentially giving the military blanket discretion over politicking public assemblies," she said.

Ruwanpathirana said Amnesty would be watching closely to ensure the new president "doesn't abuse his powers to unduly restrict the people's right to peaceful assembly."