Sri Lanka begins vote to replace president who fled

Sri Lanka’s parliament began voting on Wednesday to replace the president Gotabaya Rajapaksawho fled abroad after his palace was attacked by angry protesters who are now demanding a crackdown from his successor.

One by one, the legislators entered the ballot booths set up on the floor of the chamber to choose three candidates to lead the crisis-ridden country.

“Members are reminded that it is an offense to take photographs of ballot papers or show them to others,” Parliamentary Secretary General Dhammika Dasanayake told them. Previous elections have been marred by allegations of corruption and vote buying.

The winner will lead a bankrupt nation in bailout talks with the IMF, with its 22 million people suffering severe shortages of food, fuel and medicine.

Outside parliament, hundreds of heavily armed troops and police stood guard, but there were no signs of demonstrators.

Analysts say Ranil Wickremesinghe is the former six-time prime minister, six-time prime minister who became acting president after his predecessor stepped down, but the protesters who see him as an ally of Rajapaksa are going in league

Months of demonstrations over an unprecedented economic crisis ended when Rajapaksa announced his resignation from Singapore last week, days after troops rescued the leader from his besieged compound.

His departure marks the departure of a once-powerful ruling clan that has dominated Sri Lankan politics for two decades, after his brothers stepped down from their posts as prime minister and finance minister earlier this year.

Wickremesinghe, 73, has the support of SLPP Rajapaksas, the largest bloc in the 225-member parliament, in the election.

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As acting president, Wickremesinghe has extended a state of emergency that gives police and security forces sweeping powers, and last week ordered troops to evict protesters from occupied state buildings at them.

Opposition MPs said Wickremesinghe’s hardline stance against demonstrators was going down well with MPs who were at the receiving end of the mob violence, and that most SLPP lawmakers would side with him.

“Ranil is emerging as a law and order candidate,” Tamil MP Dharmalingam Sithadthan told AFP ahead of the ballot.

Political analyst Kusal Perera agreed that Wickremesinghe had a “slight advantage” despite his own party winning only one seat in the August 2020 elections.

“Ranil has managed to win over the urban middle classes by restoring some of the supplies like gas and has already cleared government buildings showing his firmness,” Perera said.

The contest seemed close as lobbying intensified before the vote. Two smaller parties pledged their support to Wickremesinghe’s main challenger, Dullas Alahapperuma, and a Tamil party with two votes said it was switching sides to support Wickremesinghe.

Observers believe Wickremesinghe will hang tough if he wins and the demonstrators – who have been demanding his resignation, accusing him of protecting the interests of the Rajapaksas – will take to the streets.

Former president Mahinda Rajapaksa, deposed Gotabaya’s elder brother and head of the clan that dominated Sri Lankan politics for many years, is still in the country, and party sources said he was pressuring SLPP lawmakers to support by Wickremesinghe.

SEE ALSO: The prime minister’s house in Sri Lanka was set on fire as the President fled from protesters

‘Actual consensual government’

His main opponent in the vote was the dissident SLPP and former education minister Alahapperuma, a former journalist who is supported by the opposition.

Alahapperuma promised this week to “form a consensus government for the first time in our history”.

If he wins, the 63-year-old is expected to name opposition leader Sajith Premadasa as his prime minister. Premadasa’s late father Ranasinghe ruled the country with an iron fist in the 1980s, when Alahapperuma was a rights campaigner.

The third candidate was Anura Dissanayake, 53, leader of the leftist People’s Liberation Front (JVP), which has a coalition government with three parliamentary seats.

Legislators prioritize candidates, and more than half of the vote is needed to win.

If no one crosses the first preference threshold, the candidate with the least support must be eliminated and their votes distributed according to the second preference.

The new leader will be in office for the balance of Rajapaksa’s term, which runs until November 2024.

If Wickremesinghe is confirmed in the post, he is expected to name public administration minister Dinesh Gunawardena, 73, a student and staunch Rajapaksa loyalist, as the new prime minister.

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