Sri Lankan parliament to choose speaker to lead past crisis

Colombia, Sri Lanka — Sri Lanka’s parliament will vote by secret ballot on Wednesday for a new president who will lead the country out of the deep political, economic and humanitarian crisis that toppled the former leader and left tensions simmering in the island nation.

Prime Minister and Acting President Ranil Wickremesinghe, who has been the face of the government’s handling of the economic crisis, will face a tough challenge after late support swelled for his main rival.

Dullas Alahapperuma, a former minister and government spokesman, was nominated by a breakaway faction of the ruling coalition, and ethnic minority parties have also said they would support him. Marxist party leader Anura Dissanayake was also due to appear.

The winner will serve the remainder of Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s term which ends in 2024. Rajapaksa fled the country and resigned via email last week after angry protesters over the country’s economic collapse stormed his residence official and took control of the main buildings of the State.

The economic crisis has left Sri Lanka’s 22 million people struggling with shortages of essentials, including medicine, fuel and food, as the government negotiates a bailout package with the International Monetary Fund. And the resulting political crisis has raised concerns about whether a new government will be enough to fix the economy and appease a public furious at the failures of its politicians.

Wickremesinghe, 73, has extensive experience in diplomatic and international affairs and led crucial IMF talks. Playing the dual role of finance minister, he delivered weekly addresses in parliament warning that the way out of the crisis would be difficult, while pledging to reshuffle a government that is increasingly concentrating power under the presidency.

Wickremesinghe is deeply unpopular with the general public, who view him as a holdover from the Rajapaksa government that led the country to economic disaster.

Only a few lawmakers have publicly said they would vote for Wickremesinghe given the hostility against him. Dozens of lawmakers loyal to Rajapaksa whose homes were burned down by protesters in May would back Wickremesinghe on assurances that he will punish perpetrators harshly and maintain law and order.

He had appeared to be the leading contender during an impasse in talks for an alliance between Alahapperuma and opposition leader Sajith Premadasa over who should be the presidential candidate. But support quickly grew for Alahapperuma after Premadasa stepped down and gave him his support.

Some expected supporters of Wickremesinghe in the ruling coalition turned to him, and parties that had not decided their vote said they supported Alahapperuma. A main ethnic Tamil party with 10 lawmakers also decided to vote for Alahapperuma.

If Wickremesinghe loses, he will likely lose his prime ministership as well because the new president has discretion to appoint a new prime minister. Premadasa is likely to be appointed prime minister if Alahapperuma wins the presidency.

Wickremesinghe is six times prime minister and is making his third attempt at the highest office after losing presidential elections in 1999 and 2005.

Opponents of his candidacy fear he represents an extension of Rajapaksa rule and a potential comeback for an embattled political dynasty.

Students and political activists staged small protests on Tuesday demanding Wickremesinghe step down before forcing him. Some intimidating messages circulating on social media warned lawmakers against returning to their constituencies if they voted for Wickremesinghe.

Alahapperuma, 63, is considered a populist, with good public relations and communication skills. Although he is a former government spokesman and has held various positions including Minister of Information and Media, Minister of Sports and Minister of Power under previous governments, he was previously only not considered for leadership positions.

Marxist party leader Anura Dissanayake, 53, was also expected to contest Wednesday’s vote. He also ran for president in 2019.

The vote begins at 10 a.m. with the secret ballot of the 225 deputies chaired by the secretary general. The votes will be counted and announced immediately.

ABC News

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