Six-time Prime Minister and acting President Ranil Wickremesinghe was on Wednesday elected President of Sri Lanka — a post he has coveted but never held in his nearly 50-year-long political career — amid an extraordinary political crisis set off by the island nation’s painful 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 support to him on Tuesday. The leftist Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna’s candidate Anura Kumara Dissanayake won only three votes. Two MPs from the Tamil National People’s Front (TNPF) abstained.

“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 to economic recovery.

This is the third unlikely elevation this year for Wickremesinghe, 73, who is the United National Party’s sole MP in the Parliament — entering not with an election win, but through the national list, based on the party’s vote share in the 2020 general elections. In the last three months, coinciding with Sri Lanka’s escalating economic crisis, he has risen from lone MP to PM, before clinching Presidency on Wednesday.

On May 12, recently ousted President Gotabaya Rajapaksa appointed him as Prime Minister, replacing Mahinda Rajapaksa, who had resigned days earlier, in the wake of violence triggered by his supporters. On July 13, Wickremesinghe was appointed acting President, just ahead of Gotabaya’s resignation, upon fleeing the island to seek refuge in the Maldives, and later Singapore, as demonstrators stormed his office and home in an escalation of mass resistance to his government.

Challenges ahead

Wickremesinghe will helm the country during its worst economic crisis since Independence, which has put citizens amid crippling shortages and soaring living costs. His election comes amid enduring public protests from citizens’ groups that accuse him of being a Rajapaksa “backer”. Wickremesinghe has denied the charge, and said he took the PM’s post only to set the country’s economy in order.

In a recent Twitter thread, he claimed that power cuts and fuel distribution had improved since he took charge as Premier in May, although thousands of citizens are still spending days in long queues to purchase fuel. LPG is in short supply, power cuts are being extended and prices of essential are shooting up amid hyper-inflation.

Wickremesinghe began talks with the International Monetary Fund (IMF) in June when he was Premier. However, the Fund has said its support would depend on the progress Colombo makes in restructuring its foreign debt totalling $50 billion, after opting for a pre-emptive default in April.

Protestors chant slogans against newly elected President Ranil Wickremesinghe in Colombo on Wednesday

Protestors chant slogans against newly elected President Ranil Wickremesinghe in Colombo on Wednesday | Photo Credit: ADNAN ABIDI

‘Ranil go home’

Meanwhile, protesters from the ‘Janatha Aragalaya’ (People’s Struggle) have said they would agitate until Wickremesinghe, too, steps down. “After ‘Gota go home’, demand number two of the people’s protests was clearly ‘Ranil go home’. He has no political mandate; he lost his own seat. He doesn’t have the people’s mandate. It is a sad day for democracy that such a candidate was elected President of Sri Lanka,” said Marisa De Silva, human rights activist who is part of the people’s movement.

Over the last few months, the ‘Aragalaya’ did “much of the heavy lifting”, she said, in ousting the Rajapaksas, and dismantling the Cabinet. “The Parliament had one job today — to heed the call of the people. Our MPs proved that they don’t have the people’s interest at heart. They are self-serving and have no legitimacy,” she said.

Further, it remains to be seen how Wickremesinghe will respond to popular calls from the people’s movement and civil society to abolish the Executive Presidency, after he rose to the position for the first time. Following the passage of the 20th Amendment by the Rajapaksa government in 2020, Sri Lanka’s President enjoys unbridled powers and even greater immunity than before. Wickremesinghe has pledged to bring about constitutional changes to clip the Executive’s powers and in turn, empower the Parliament.

Political experience

According to senior journalist and political analyst V Thanabalasingham, there are some who think Wickremesinghe should be given a chance to address the economic downturn, given his political experience and “international appeal”.  “Whatever it is, Ranil Wickremesinghe should be mindful of the unusual circumstances in which he has become President. It was not an election that brought him to the seat, but the conditions created by an acute economic crisis,” he said.

Commenting on Wickremesinghe’s election on Wednesday, the Indian High Commission in Colombo said in a tweet: “As a close friend and neighbour of Sri Lanka and a fellow democracy, we will continue to be supportive of the quest of the people of Sri Lanka for stability and economic recovery, through democratic means and values, established democratic institutions and constitutional framework.” Wickremesinghe will be sworn in as Sri Lanka’s eighth Executive President on Thursday.

Meera Srinivasan is The Hindu Correspondent in Colombo