Crisis-hit Sri Lanka hunts for a new leader

Amid the ticking clock of the island's food and fuel shortages, various political parties are now scrambling to appoint their own presidential candidate.

Rohini Mohan

Rohini Mohan

The Straits Times


Both President Gotabaya Rajapaksa and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe have offered to resign amid massive protests. PHOTO: EPA-EFE

July 13, 2022

BANGALORE – Crisis-hit Sri Lanka is trying to form a new cross-party government after President Gotabaya Rajapaksa and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe have both offered to resign under pressure from massive public protests.

Amid the ticking clock of the island’s food and fuel shortages, various political parties are now scrambling to appoint their own presidential candidate.

Last Saturday (July 9), protesters enraged with corrupt and ineffective governance burst into the President and Prime Minister’s houses. Many swam in the large pools, snacked in the well stocked kitchens and made themselves at home on the four-poster beds.

President Rajapaksa – who won the popular mandate in 2019 but is now blamed by protesters for the country’s crippling economic crisis – was prevented by airport staff from flying out of the country on Tuesday.

His brother Mahinda Rajapaksa resigned as prime minister in May, which saw Mr Wickremesinghe appointed on May 12 in his stead.

After an urgent meeting called by Speaker of Parliament Mahinda Yapa Abeywardena last Saturday, all political parties decided that the President and Prime Minister must resign.

Mr Wickremesinghe announced that night that he would quit, but has not officially handed in his resignation – which, technically, should be submitted to the President.

Mr Abeywardena told Sri Lanka’s Daily Mirror on Monday that Mr Rajapaksa signed a resignation letter after fleeing his official residence last Friday night.

The Speaker is expected to officially announce the President’s resignation on Wednesday and parliamentarians will pick a new president on July 20.

Once that dice is rolled, the country will install new leaders who face the onerous task of replenishing fuel, medical and food supplies, shoring up dollar reserves, fixing the 55 per cent inflation, repaying debt and reviving a tanked economy – before the next general election in 2024.

For now, however, Sri Lankan politics is in a stalemate.

According to Sri Lanka’s Constitution, if the president resigns before his term ends, the prime minister becomes an acting president for 30 days till Parliament elects one of its members to serve for the rest of the term.

If the prime minister also resigns, the Speaker of Parliament becomes an interim president.

Neither Mr Rajapaksa nor Mr Wickremesinghe have resigned as at press time.

Mr Wickremesinghe is buying time in the hope that he could become acting president and that this would give him an edge when Parliament elects a new president, said analysts.

Mr Sagara Kariyawasam, general-secretary of the ruling Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP), said it has “no presidential candidate so far”.

“It is not proper for us to name a candidate before our President has resigned,” said Mr Kariyawasam.

An independent group in SLPP, however, has mentioned former media and sports minister Dullas Alahapperuma, a known Rajapaksa loyalist.

Other political parties have their own favourites for the July 20 presidential contest.

The main opposition party Samagi Jana Balawegaya, which has nearly 50 seats in the 225-member Parliament, has selected its leader Sajith Premadasa.

The Tamil National Alliance, a group of parties representing the Sri Lankan Tamil minority, might pick its spokesman and Jaffna legislator M.A. Sumanthiran.

Protesters burst into both the President’s and Prime Minister’s homes, leading to both of them offering to resign. PHOTO: AFP

Notwithstanding competing political ambitions – and the idealistic demands from protesters who want a clean slate – the unpopular Rajapaksas’ party SLPP still has the parliamentary majority.

This would give it the power to determine the next president or prime minister elected through parliamentary procedure.

Mr Kariyawasam could not confirm the exact number of seats because some of its members resigned, but said he was “pretty sure we have the clear majority”.

Even with multiple names in the fray, in a time of foment when Sri Lankans want systemic change, “none of the presidential candidates have legitimacy”, said social activist Harshana Rambukwella.

Protest organisers and civil society activists want “a neutral figure” as president, someone who can be a consensus candidate but one qualified enough to negotiate a bailout from the International Monetary Fund, command public trust and lead the country out of its economic abyss.

“Sri Lanka urgently needs an interim government for three to six months to stabilise the economy, and then hold general elections. But all we have now is a power vacuum,” said Mr Rambukwella, who is a professor in English at the Open University of Sri Lanka.

Various political observers, lawyers, protesters and politicians that The Straits Times spoke to ended their comments with “anything can happen now”.

“Sri Lanka is in an incredibly fluid situation and it’s difficult to say which way it will play out,” said independent political analyst Amita Arudpragasam.

“But we need an interim government soon so that we can begin serious economic reform and give relief to struggling citizens.”

Names raised as possible new Sri Lankan president
Dullas Alahapperuma (Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna)
A legislator from Matara, former journalist, former minister of media and sports.

He was mentioned as a candidate by a faction of the ruling party that wants to shrug off the Rajapaksa connection but stay in power. But SLPP has not officially named him.

Ranil Wickremesinghe (United National Party)
Five-time prime minister, including current term.

The politician lost his Colombo seat in the 2019 elections and his party won no seats. He took over as Prime Minister in May when Mr Mahinda Rajapaksa was shunted out by protesters, but analysts said he lost all his goodwill because he did little to fix the economy or hold President Rajapaksa to account.

Sajith Premadasa (Samagi Jana Balawegaya)
Colombo legislator, son of former president Ranasinghe Premadasa. The only presidential candidate officially named so far.

As the leader of the biggest opposition party and a clear anti-Rajapaksa voice, Mr Premadasa should be a natural alternative. But some discontented Sri Lankans criticise his political aristocracy and indecisiveness.

M.A. Sumanthiran (Tamil National Alliance)
Jaffna legislator, constitutional lawyer.

The erudite lawyer is a favourite of the educated upper middle class for his articulate speeches in Parliament, but his Tamil ethnicity may find resistance from the Sinhalese majority.

Sri Lanka has never had a president or prime minister from its Tamil or Muslim communities, who make up around 15 per cent and 10 per cent of the population respectively.

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