July 19, 2022
BANGALORE – Political parties in Sri Lanka are struggling to find common ground to pick a new president this week to lead the country out of bankruptcy.
Divisions centre mainly on presidential nominees even as Sri Lanka needs urgent fixes to arrest the deepening economic crisis.
The country is slated to hold a parliamentary procedure on Wednesday (July 20) to elect a new president, who will serve out the remainder of fleeing president Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s term until November 2024.
Mr Rajapaksa’s resignation – sent from Singapore soon after he arrived last Thursday – was accepted by Parliament last Friday. He flew to the Maldives and then to Singapore after hundreds of thousands of anti-government protesters took to the streets of Colombo more than a week ago and occupied his official residence and offices.
The anti-government uprising triggered by food, fuel and medicine shortages has now crossed 100 days. This time, protesters want Acting President Ranil Wickremesinghe gone. The six-time prime minister is seen as an ally of Mr Rajapaksa and analysts say his election as president could lead to further unrest.
Mr Wickremesinghe’s unpopularity soared after he declared a state of emergency late on Sunday “in the interests of public security”.
Crowds of protesters that had reduced following Mr Rajapaksa’s resignation swelled again on Monday.
But with ruling party Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP) announcing that it would back Mr Wickremesinghe as president, the very leader protesters despise has become the top contender.
Although members of Mr Rajapaksa’s family quit the government one by one as demanded by protesters, SLPP’s majority in Parliament still enables the family to influence the choice of the next president. The party has more than 100 of 225 seats in Parliament. SLPP general secretary Sagara Kariyawasam said he did not have an exact count of the seats due to recent defections.
Mr Wickremesinghe is not an SLPP member but the leader of its once-rival United National Party. He was appointed prime minister in May, replacing Mr Mahinda Rajapaksa who had resigned under pressure from protesters.
SLPP general secretary Sagara Kariyawasam said that the party backed Mr Wickremesinghe because Mr Gotabaya Rajapaksa had picked him “out of some trust in his abilities”.
However, an independent faction of the SLPP refuses to back Mr Wickremesinghe, supporting former sports and media minister Dullas Alahapperuma instead. SLPP chairman G. L. Peiris asked how “an outside candidate’s name” was announced when one of its own members had come forward to contest.
Opposition leaders back Mr Sajith Premadasa, leader of the Samagi Jana Balawegaya (SJB), the biggest opposition party with around 50 seats in Parliament.
The son of an assassinated president, Mr Premadasa said on Sunday that he was “campaigning hard to try and persuade the MPs opposed to us to vote with us” by explaining to them “the futility of continuing to support Rajapaksa’s corrupt and crony politics”.
But on Monday, local media reported that Mr Premadasa was likely to withdraw from the Parliament vote for president and accept the role of prime minister on the condition that the president’s powers would be curbed. SJB leaders refused to comment on the reports.
Much of the Sri Lankan media is referring to Mr Wickremesinghe as a stand-in for the Rajapaksas.
Protester Swasthika Arulingam said: “If Ranil Wickremesinghe becomes president, it’s as good as having a Rajapaksa again. Sri Lankans will pour out on the streets in anger.”
The Bar Association of Sri Lanka, an influential lawyers’ group, criticised the imposition of a state of emergency during the Parliament’s vote for president, urging that it “must not be used to suppress any legitimate expressions of opinion or suppress dissent”.
Mr Wickremesinghe announced another state of emergency last week after Mr Rajapaksa fled to Singapore to escape the popular uprising, but had to withdraw it amid global condemnation.
Defence officials said additional troops and police will be deployed to the capital to bolster security around Parliament ahead of the vote on Wednesday.