Sri Lanka will witness a three-cornered race for presidency on Wednesday, as the island awaits a new leader and government after an astounding people’s uprising ousted former President Gotabaya Rajapaksa last week.

Acting President Ranil Wickremesinghe, the formerly Rajapaksa-aligned and now independent Dullas Alahapperuma, and the leftist Anura Kumara Dissanayake were on Tuesday nominated by parties in Parliament, a day ahead of the poll through a secret ballot.

Although Opposition Leader Sajith Premadasa had earlier announced he would contest, he withdrew his bid on Tuesday morning. “For the greater good of my country that I love and the people I cherish, I hereby withdraw my candidacy for the position of President. @sjbsrilanka (Samagi Jana Balawegaya — SJB or United People’s Power) and our alliance and our Opposition partners will work hard towards making @DullasOfficial victorious,” he said in a tweet, pledging support for Alahapperuma.

Premadasa later urged India to help Sri Lanka regardless of Wednesday’s outcome in the key vote. “Irrespective of who becomes the President of Sri Lanka tomorrow, it is my humble and earnest request to PM Shri @narendramodi, to all the political parties and the people of India to keep helping mother Lanka and its people to come out of this disaster,” he said in a tweet on Tuesday evening.

Who supports whom?

The Rajapaksas’ Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP or People’s Front) dominates the legislature with over 100 seats. But, some of its legislators have more recently been sitting “independently” in the House, apparently distancing themselves from the Rajapaksa clan and their party, widely discredited during Sri Lanka’s devastating economic crisis.

The party appears divided on its preferred presidential candidate as Gotabaya’s successor. Its general secretary Sagara Kariyawasam recently announced that the SLPP would back Acting President Wickremesinghe, while chairman GL Peiris has pledged support for Alahapperuma, who was earlier with the Rajapaksa camp. While political sources indicate that the Rajapaksa family is firmly backing Wickremesinghe, it remains to be seen how members of their party might vote.

The SJB currently has around 50 seats in the 225-member House, following recent defections of some of its members. The Opposition Tamil National Alliance (TNA), with 10 members in Parliament, will support Alahapperuma, Alliance spokesman M.A. Sumanthiran announced Tuesday night. Dissanayake’s Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) has three seats. 

The Tamil Progressive Alliance (TPA), a party representing Malaiyaha Tamils with five SJB-aligned MPs, on Tuesday pledged support to Alahapperuma, as did the Sri Lanka Muslim Congress (SLMC). The Tamil National People’s Front (TNPF), which has two MPs from Jaffna, announced its decision to boycott the vote as the candidates “appeared reluctant to resolve the decades-long Tamil national question.”

With the SLPP still holding majority in the House, all presidential aspirants would need the support of some of its members to win the vote. Their success would depend on how the independent lawmakers vote, and the extent of the split in the SLPP.

‘Not the same’

For six-time Premier and Acting President Wickremesinghe, this is arguably the closest he has been to clinching presidency. However, with Premadasa pulling out of the race and throwing his weight behind Alahapperuma, the contest may have just got harder for him.

Further, on Tuesday, trade unions and anti-government demonstrators agitated against a possible Wickremesinghe presidency. He was “part of the Rajapaksa government and its enabler”, they charged. Wickremesinghe, however, had told  CNN in an interview on Monday: “I am not the same.”

Some protesters also slammed Alahapperuma’s long-time affiliation to the “racist Rajapaksa regime”, and asked how citizens, especially Tamils, could expect him to deliver justice to the community. Perhaps aware of his image among the island’s ethnic minorities, Alahapperuma, while announcing his candidacy on July 15, promised to “embark on a new, constructive course” towards economic prosperity while upholding “rule of law and maintaining ethnic solidarity”.

The last time Sri Lanka elected its President through Parliament was in 1993, following the assassination of then President Ranasinghe Premadasa. DB Wijetunga was unanimously elected to the top office to complete Premadasa’s term.

Meera Srinivasan is The Hindu Correspondent in Colombo

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