Sri Lanka's parliament chooses 6-time Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe to be new president

Former Sri Lankan President Rajapaksa’s number two takes the top job.

Tan Min-Wei | July 20, 2022, 10:53 PM

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Six-time prime minister of Sri Lanka Ranil Wickremesinghe has been elected president of the beleaguered country by the Sri Lankan parliament.

Backed by the old regime

Wickremesinghe, 73, will take over from Gotabaya Rajapaksa.

Rajapaksa, one of several brothers in the Rajapaksa political dynasty, fled to the Maldives on July 13 after massive street protests, before making his way to Singapore on July 14. He later resigned via email from Singapore where he likely remains presently.

The president-elect is the only member of the United National Party, but was backed by the majority of the Rajapaksa political vehicle, the Sri Lanka Podujana Peramnua (SLPP), garnering the support of 134 members of parliament, out of a possible 223, according to the BBC.

His closest rival Dullus Alahapperuma, who is a breakaway member of the SLPP, garnered 84 votes.

Prolonged protests

Sri Lanka is going through a period of prolonged economic and political unrest, as years of mismanagement by the government has bankrupted the nation.

Sri Lankans have been facing severe shortages of fuel, food, and other essentials for several months. Queues for fuel and food can now reach several days.

The turmoil has led to several rounds of street protests, forcing the Rajapaksa family to resign from public office.

Wickremesinghe’s direct predecessor, Mahinda Rajapaksa, who's also the former president’s brother, was forced from office in the initial wave of protest, paving the way for Wickremesinghe to be appointed.

Wickremesinghe himself is not a popular choice. With Gotabaya Rajapaksa fleeing, Wickremesinghe has been operating as acting-president since July 10. But according to the Guardian, protestors have replaced Gotabaya’s name with Wickremesinghe’s in their calls for resignations.

In the July 9 protest that forced the former president into hiding, protesters also allegedly burnt down Wickremesinghe’s private residence, and invaded his official residence days later.

Wickremesinghe is the second PM to have his house supposedly burnt down by protesters this year. Mahinda Rajapaksa’s private home was also set ablaze on the day he resigned.

Risk of Ruin

The election of Wickremesinghe runs the risk of intensifying unrest, with many seeing Wickremesinghe as being too close to the Rajapaksa family. He has also condemned protesters as "fascists" and "extremists", as well as declaring a state of emergency.

An effigy of Wickremesinghe was burnt outside of the parliament during his election.

The president-elect has been trying to distance himself from the dynasty, saying in a CNN interview that the Rajapaksa government had covered up critical facts about the state of the economy, such as the country being essentially bankrupt and needing to go to the International Monetary Fund (IMF).

But this will be difficult to do as his predecessor and former president, Mahinda Rajapaksa, was in parliament during the vote. According to News18, an Indian news outlet, it was his first public appearance since the July 9 protests, and he voted along with his brother Chamal, and son Namal.

Wickremesinghe is slated to remain in power until 2024.

As the SLPP holds almost two-thirds of the seats, it is unlikely that he will be disposed via vote of no-confidence, or that a candidate opposed to the Rajapaksa dynasty will emerge without fresh elections.

The president-elect plans to return to negotiations for an IMF bailout, and hopes that it will allow him to return stability to the Sri Lankan economy by the end of 2024.

Top image by Ranil Wickremesinghe/Twitter & Abhishek Chinnappa/Getty