Six-time Prime Minister and acting President Ranil Wickremesinghe was on Wednesday elected President of Sri Lanka — a post that eluded him despite a near half-century political career — in an extraordinary circumstances of a political crisis triggered by the island’s economic crash. 

Wickremesinghe won 134 votes in the 225-member Parliament, securing a comfortable victory margin in a three-way contest.  Dullas Alahapperuma, a formerly Rajapaksa-aligned, now independent MP, won 82 votes, despite several independent lawmakers, the main opposition, and most minority parties pledging to back him on Tuesday. The leftist Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna’s candidate Anura Kumara Dissanayake won 3 votes. Two MPs abstained from voting. 

“The time for division is over,” Wickremesinghe said in his first remarks after clinching Presidency. He urged all political parties to come together to take the country on the path of economic recovery.  

This is the third unlikely elevation this year for Wickremesinghe, 73, since Sri Lanka’s economic crisis worsened. The sole member of his United National Party (UNP) in Parliament, Wickremesinghe entered the current Parliament not through a poll victory, but from the national list, based on the party’s total vote share in the 2020 general elections.

On May 12, the recently ousted President Gotabaya Rajapaksa appointed him as the Prime Minister, replacing Mahinda Rajapaksa, who had resigned days earlier, due to protests and violence. On July 13, Wickremesinghe was appointed acting President, just ahead of Gotabaya’s resignation after he fled the island and took refuge in the Maldives, and later Singapore, after protesters stormed his office and home in an escalation of mass resistance to his government. 

Wickremesinghe will helm the country during its worst economic crisis since Independence, putting citizens amidst crippling shortages and soaring living costs. However, his election comes amid enduring public protests from citizens’ groups that accused him of being a Rajapaksa “enabler”. 

Wickremesinghe has denied the charge, and said he took the PM’s post only to set the country’s economy in order. In a Twitter thread on Monday, he claimed power cuts and fuel distribution had improved since he took charge as Premier in May, although thousands of citizens are still braving long queues for days to purchase fuel.  “I call upon all political parties in the country to put aside differences and come together. I urge everyone to help form an All-Party Government allowing the country to recover from the economic crisis,” he had said. 

Following the passage of the 20th Amendment by the Rajapaksa government in 2020, Sri Lanka’s President enjoys unbridled powers and greater immunity. Wickremesinghe has pledged to bring about constitutional changes to clip the Executive’s powers and, in turn, empower the parliament.