Unpopular Sri Lankan Prime Minister elected President; risks new turmoil

COLOMBO, Sri Lanka (AP) — Sri Lankan lawmakers elected the unpopular prime minister as their new president on Wednesday, an election that risked reigniting turmoil in the South Asian nation hit by economic collapse.

The crisis has already forced one Sri Lankan leader to resignand a few hundred protesters rallied quickly after the vote to express their outrage that Ranil Wickremesinghe – a six-time prime minister whom they see as part of the troubled political establishment – would remain in power.

The people of Sri Lanka have been taking to the streets for months to demand the resignation of their top leaders as the country descended into economic chaos that left its 22 million people struggling with a lack of basic necessities, including medicine, fuel and food. After that, demonstrators stormed the presidential palace and several other government buildings, President Gotabaya Rajapaksa fled last week and then resigned.

Much of the protesters’ anger is directed at Rajapaksa and his family’s political dynasty, who ruled Sri Lanka for most of the last two decades. But many also blame Wickremesinghe for protecting Rajapaksa, and crowds set fire to his home and occupied his office during demonstrations last week.

Wednesday’s vote means Wickremesinghe – who was also Rajapaksa’s finance minister and became acting president after the leader’s escape – will finish the presidential term, which ends in 2024. He can now also appoint a new prime minister.

“I don’t need to tell you what state our country is in,” Wickremesinghe, 73, told fellow MPs after announcing his win. “People don’t expect us to do the old politics, they expect us to work together.”

He pleaded for the country to move on: “Now that the election is over, we must end this division.”

But protesters instead flocked to the presidential residence, shouting, “Ranil, go home.”

“We are very sad, very disappointed in the 225 Members of Parliament that we elected to speak for us, which they didn’t do,” said Visaka Jayawware, a performance artist in the crowd. “We will continue to fight for the people of Sri Lanka. We must call for new elections.”

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Wickremesinghe has extensive experience in diplomatic and international affairs – he revealed on Wednesday that he has spent 45 years of his life in parliament – and has led the talks with the International Monetary Fund on a bailout for the bankrupt country.

But many voters have viewed him with suspicion since he was appointed prime minister by Rajapaksa in May in hopes he would restore stability.

The demonstrators accuse the Rajapaksa and his powerful family of siphoning money from the treasury and accelerating the country’s collapse through bad management. The family has denied the corruption allegations, but the former president acknowledged some of his policies contributed to Sri Lanka’s collapse.

“The struggle will continue until our demands are met. (Wickremesinghe) has no mandate to govern the country,” said Nemel Jayaweera, a human resources expert. “We will oppose him.”

Nevertheless, the ruling party’s majority in parliament led Wickremesinghe to victory in Wednesday’s vote by 134 votes. Populist Dullas Alahapperuma, a longtime Rajapaksa ally and also a minister in his government, secured 82, while a Marxist candidate scored three.

The vote, shown on national television, was a proper, solemn affair. While the vote was secret, lawmakers banged their tables when the results were announced in support of their candidates.

After the vote, supporters took to the streets to celebrate Wickremesinghe’s victory. He will be sworn in on Thursday.

Few lawmakers had publicly said they would vote for Wickremesinghe amid widespread hostility against him – but dozens of Rajapaksa’s supporters were expected to support him because he had assured them he was a protester who killed houses in the riots burned down by politicians would be severely punished.

On Monday, Wickremesinghe, in his role as acting president, declared a state of emergency, giving him sweeping powers to act in the interests of public safety and order. Authorities can conduct searches and arrest people, and Wickremesinghe can also amend or suspend laws.

Political unrest in Sri Lanka has only exacerbated the economic catastrophe. But Wickremesinghe said on Monday that negotiations with the IMF were nearing completion, while talks on aid to other countries had also made progress. He also said the government has taken steps to address fuel and cooking gas shortages.

Hours before Wednesday’s vote, IMF Managing Director Kristalina Georgieva told financial magazine Nikkei Asia that the organization hoped to conclude bailout talks “as soon as possible.”

As prime minister, Wickremesinghe made weekly speeches in parliament warning that the road out of the crisis would be difficult while pledging to overhaul a government that was increasingly concentrating power under the presidency.

Presidents in Sri Lanka are usually elected by the public. Responsibility only falls to Parliament if the presidency becomes vacant before the official end of the term.

This has only happened once in Sri Lanka, when then Prime Minister Dingiri Banda Wijetunga was unchallenged by Parliament in 1993 after the assassination of former President Ranasinghe Premadasa, father of the current opposition leader.

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Associated Press writer Bharatha Mallawarachi contributed to this report.

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For more information on AP’s Sri Lanka coverage, visit https://apnews.com/hub/sri-lanka

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