Sri Lanka: Parliament will choose its new president amid crisis

COLOMBO

Sri Lanka’s Parliament will choose its new president from three candidates on Wednesday (July 20), hoping that the new leader will be able to pull the island out of its worst economic and political crisis since independence in 1948.

But a win for acting President Ranil Wickremesinghe, one of the contenders but opposed by many ordinary Sri Lankans, could lead to more demonstrations by people furious with the ruling elite after months of crippling shortages of fuel, food and medicines.

Ruling-party lawmaker Dullas Alahapperuma, a former journalist, is more acceptable to the protesters and the opposition but does not have any top-level governance experience in a country with barely any dollars for imports and desperately in need of an International Monetary Fund bailout.

The third candidate, Mr Anura Kumara Dissanayaka, the leader of the leftist Janatha Vimukti Peramuna party, commands only three seats in Parliament and has no realistic chance of winning.

Mr Wickremesinghe, a six-time prime minister, became acting president last week after the then incumbent, Mr Gotabaya Rajapaksa, fled to Singapore where he announced his resignation. Before he fled, protesters had stormed his official residence and office, roaming the corridors, using his gym and swimming in his pool.

Protesters also burned down Mr Wickremesinghe’s private home and stormed his office, but failed to oust him. Mr Wickremesinghe said this week that by the time he joined the current government as prime minister in May, the economy had already collapsed.

Sri Lankans have blamed the Rajapaksas – seven from the family were in the government as of April – for the meltdown.

Their decisions to cut taxes and ban chemical fertilisers, which damaged crops, decimated the debt-laden economy that was badly exposed by the Covid-19 pandemic.

It was not immediately clear how much support Mr Wickremesinghe, 73, seen as an ally of the Rajapaksa clan, and Mr Alahapperuma, 63, have in the 225-seat Parliament.

Mr Wickremesinghe is backed by a section of the ruling party that had a total of 145 seats as of the last parliamentary election in 2020. Mr Alahapperuma has the support of the other section as well as the main opposition party that won 54 seats last time around.

The latest numbers are not clear because some lawmakers have become independents.

“Earlier, Ranil Wickremesinghe was the front-runner but now the outcome is much more uncertain,” said political scientist Jayadeva Uyangoda.

“The balance of parliament power has shifted away from him. The outcome is dependent on how much control the Rajapaksas have…over their party members.”

THE VOTING PROCESS

Sri Lanka’s Parliament in 1993 unanimously chose Mr D.B. Wijetunga to finish the tenure of assassinated President Ranasinghe Premadasa. This time, three candidates are in the fray to complete Mr Rajapaksa’s term, scheduled to end in 2024.

“It will be marked as a new experience in the parliamentary history of this country,” said a statement from the communication chief of Parliament, laying out the procedure.

Lawmakers will rank the candidates in order of preference in a secret ballot – a mechanism which gives them a freer hand than an open poll, and previous elections have seen allegations of bribes offered and accepted in exchange for votes.

Candidates need more than half the vote to be elected. If no one crosses the threshold on first preferences, the candidate with the lowest support will be eliminated and their votes distributed according to second preferences.

If Mr Wickremesinghe is confirmed in the post, he is expected to name public administration minister Dinesh Gunawardena, 73, his schoolmate and a strong Rajapaksa loyalist, as the new premier.

Whatever the process, protesters are clear they want Mr Wickremesinghe gone.

Mr Wickremesinghe, for his part, imposed a state of emergency on Monday, giving him more powers to launch a crackdown should he feel the need.

“We are protesting again Ranil. He is a corrupted man,” said Duminda Nagamuwa, who organised protests in Colombo after the nominations were finalised. “If Ranil comes (into power), we cannot have stability.

The three contenders

Ranil Wickremesinghe, 73

A lawyer by training, Mr Wickremesinghe has been prime minister six times since he was first elected to the legislature in the late 1970s.

Ranil Wickremesinghe Sri LankaHe had an unbroken streak in Parliament until 2020, when his United National Party was trounced after the Easter Sunday bombings.

Known to be a political survivor, Mr Wickremesinghe was appointed prime minister by ousted president Gotabaya Rajapaksa in May.

His status as a pro-West, free-market reformist could smooth bailout negotiations with the International Monetary Fund and foreign creditors, but he has already warned that there will be no quick fix to the nation’s unprecedented economic woes.

Backed by a faction of the ruling Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP), he has allies across party lines. Yet, he is not immune to the anger on the streets and protesters burned down his private residence.

Dullas Alahapperuma, 63

Mr Alahapperuma is a former journalist who entered Parliament in 1994.

He has served as the minister of mass media and a Cabinet spokesman under former president Gotabaya Rajapaksa.

 DULLAS ALAHAPPERUMAHe is an ally of the former president’s brother Mahinda Rajapaksa, who served as president for a decade – from 2005 to 2015 – and became premier in Mr Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s government before being forced to resign in May.

He entered politics when he won a provincial seat in 1993, eventually serving as provincial minister for cultural affairs.

He has been with the SLPP and has been party leader for his home base of Matara in southern Sri Lanka since 2016.

The five-time lawmaker has the support of an SLPP faction.

Anura Kumara Dissanayake, 53

Mr Dissanayake is the leader of the leftist Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP), or People’s Liberation Front, which has three parliamentary seats.

Anura Kumara DissanayakeThe leftist leader has served as minister for agriculture, livestock, lands and irrigation and has been in Parliament since 2000. In an interview with Sri Lankan newspaper Daily Mirror, Mr Dissanayake has spoken of asking rich Sri Lankans living overseas to invest in the country and reviving agriculture amid various other steps to stave off the economic crisis.

In 2019, he stood as the presidential candidate of the National People’s Power movement – a broad alliance of civil society organisations, intellectuals and political parties, including the JVP – but lost the election.

with inputs from Reuters, Bloomberg

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