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The Associated Press · Posted: Jul 20, 2022 4:21 AM ET | Last Updated: July 20
21 days ago
Six-time Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe was chosen as the president by Sri Lankan lawmakers to succeed the ousted leader. But he is unpopular among voters who view him as a holdover from the previous government.
Sri Lankan lawmakers on Wednesday elected the country’s unpopular prime minister as its interim president, a choice that risked reigniting turmoil in the South Asian nation reeling from economic collapse and months of round-the-clock protests.
The crisis has already forced out one leader, and a few hundred protesters quickly gathered after the vote to express their outrage that Ranil Wickremesinghe — a six-time prime minister since the early 1990s whom they see as part of the problematic political establishment — would stay in power.
While the choice invited more protests, lawmakers apparently considered Wickremesinghe a safe pair of hands, a politician with deep experience who could lead Sri Lanka out of the crisis. He has spent 45 years in parliament and led recent talks seeking a bailout for the bankrupt island nation.
Sri Lankans have taken to the street for months to demand their top leaders step down as the country spiralled into economic chaos that left its 22 million people struggling with shortages of essentials, including medicine, fuel and food. After demonstrators stormed the presidential palace and several other government buildings last week, President Gotabaya Rajapaksa fledand then resigned.
Much of the protesters’ ire is focused on Rajapaksa and his family’s political dynasty, which ruled Sri Lanka for most of the past two decades. But many also blame Wickremesinghe for protecting Rajapaksa. During demonstrations last week, crowds set his personal residence on fire and occupied his office.
Wednesday’s vote means Wickremesinghe — who was also Rajapaksa’s finance minister and became acting president after the leader fled — will finish the presidential term ending in 2024. He can now also appoint a new prime minister.
“I need not tell you the status our country is in,” Wickremesinghe, 73, told fellow lawmakers after his victory was announced.
“People are not expecting the old politics from us. They expect us to work together.”
He pleaded for the country to move on: “Now that the election is over, we have to end this division.”
But protesters flocked to the president’s residence instead, chanting “Ranil, go home.”
“We are very sad, very disappointed with the 225 parliament members who we elected to speak for us, which they have not done,” said Visaka Jayawware, one of the demonstrators. “We will keep fighting for the people of Sri Lanka. We have to ask for a general election.”
Wickremesinghe has wide experience in diplomatic and international affairs and oversaw the bailout talks with the International Monetary Fund (IMF).
But many voters view him with suspicion since he was appointed prime minister by Rajapaksa in May, in hopes he would restore stability.
The protesters accuse Rajapaksa and his powerful family of siphoning money from government coffers and of hastening the country’s collapse by mismanaging the economy. The family has denied the corruption allegations, but the former president acknowledged that some of his policies contributed to Sri Lanka’s meltdown.
Still, the ruling party’s majority in parliament swept Wickremesinghe to victory with 134 votes.
Only a few lawmakers had publicly said they would vote for Wickremesinghe given the widespread hostility against him. But dozens loyal to Rajapaksa had been expected to back him because he had assured them he would severely punish protesters who burned politicians’ homes in the unrest.
On Monday, in his role as acting president, Wickremesinghe declared a state of emergency that gave him broad authority to act in the interest of public security and order. Authorities can carry out searches and detain people, and Wickremesinghe can also change or suspend any law.
The political turmoil in Sri Lanka has only worsened the economic disaster. But Wickremesinghe said Monday that negotiations with the IMF were drawing close to a conclusion, and talks on help from other countries had also progressed. He also said the government has taken steps to resolve shortages of fuel and cooking gas.
Hours before Wednesday’s vote, the IMF managing director Kristalina Georgieva told financial magazine Nikkei Asia that the organization hoped to complete the rescue talks “as quickly as possible.”
Presidents in Sri Lanka are normally elected by the public. The responsibility falls to parliament only if the presidency becomes vacant before the term officially ends.