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Sri Lanka picks establishment figure as president, risking more unrest

The Sri Lankan Parliament on July 20 chose Ranil Wickremesinghe to be president. (Buddhika Weerasinghe/Bloomberg News)

COLOMBO, Sri Lanka — Sri Lankan acting president Ranil Wickremesinghe was selected Wednesday by Parliament to be the country’s new leader after widespread protests ousted the unpopular Gotabaya Rajapaksa this month. Wickremesinghe’s elevation appears likely to spark further backlash from Sri Lankans, many of whom see him as part of the political elite and an ally of the Rajapaksa government that brought the island nation to an unprecedented economic crisis.

Wickremesinghe was comfortably elected with 134 votes in the 225-member Parliament to serve out the rest of the term through 2024. He was backed by Rajapaksa’s Sri Lanka People’s Front. He had been appointed prime minister in May after Rajapaksa’s elder brother, Mahinda Rajapaksa, resigned from that position.

For Sri Lankans hankering for political change, such a clearly status quo move came as a disappointment. The protesters announced that their agitation will continue, a move that risks more unrest as Wickremesinghe has signaled a willingness to use force to maintain public order.

“We won’t give up,” protester Rajeevkanth Rajkumar said at the site of the months-long demonstrations. Wickremesinghe, he said, came “to save the Rajapaksas.”

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Wickremesinghe hails from a prominent political family and has served as prime minister of Sri Lanka six times since the 1990s. He trained in law and was made a cabinet minister for the first time at age 28 in 1977, in a government led by his uncle J.R. Jayewardene.

Wickremesinghe’s support base is limited to urban areas, and in the parliamentary elections in 2020, his party failed to win a single seat. His previous presidential bids were unsuccessful.

The new president tried to strike a conciliatory note after his selection, telling lawmakers that the people were asking for a new political culture. “I want to start work from tomorrow with you. Let’s all join together,” he said.

His opponent, Dullas Alahapperuma, said the country needs “healing.” A former journalist and a cabinet minister under Rajapaksa, he was backed by the principal opposition party.

“I hope the president and the new government will hear the cries of the people who are suffering,” he said.

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Many opposition leaders said the current Parliament, where Rajapaksa’s party enjoys a majority despite the ouster of the president and prime minister, no longer reflects the people’s sentiments.

“The wish of the people was to form an all-party government without Ranil Wickremesinghe,” said Rauff Hakeem, an opposition leader. “There will be continuous unrest outside on the streets, and it will not subside.”

Wickremesinghe, who became acting president after Rajapaksa fled last week, declared a state of emergency before the vote, giving security forces wide-ranging powers. On Wednesday morning, security was beefed up around Parliament in anticipation of more protests.

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In recent weeks, demonstrators stormed and occupied the homes and offices of the president and the prime minister, demanding their resignations. Wickremesinghe had offered to step aside but ultimately did not. His private home was destroyed when a mob set it on fire earlier in July.

The protesters later withdrew from many of the buildings but have continued to camp at the presidential office. On Wednesday morning, dozens of protesters sat on the steps of the colonial-era building in a silent protest as they watched the Parliament vote on a large screen.

“Even if [the vote is] over today, it’s not over. We have to ensure our demands are met,” said Caryll Tozer, a women’s rights activist who participated in the protests. “To me, it is disheartening that someone rejected by the people made it to the top.”

Wickremesinghe denounced the protesters, calling them “fascists” for clashing with security forces on the streets of Colombo.

“We cannot allow people who want to override the constitution to occupy the offices and houses,” he said in his capacity as acting president. “We have to protect the private citizens, too.”

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Few believe that Wickremesinghe will move to reduce the presidency’s expansive executive powers — a major demand of the protesters — given that the system was created by his uncle Jayewardene. Under the Rajapaksas, the president’s authority was further strengthened, including the power to appoint the cabinet and judges.

“Gotabaya Rajapaksa is the embodiment of what could happen if an incompetent person is in charge of the presidency,” said Gehan Gunatilleke, a lawyer and political commentator. “The push to abolish [the executive presidency] has never been greater.”

Besides calming inflamed tensions, Wickremesinghe will need to step up efforts at reviving the economy.

The political instability has put at risk critical negotiations with the International Monetary Fund over a bailout package. Sri Lanka is in a deep economic crisis, with severe fuel shortages bringing the country to a near standstill. Skyrocketing food inflation has left millions struggling for essentials and has pushed many into poverty.

Wickremesinghe has said he has helped improve the supply of power and gas in the two months since he took over. In an interview with CNN this week, he said the country did not need a decade to correct its course.

“By the end of next year, let’s start stabilizing, and certainly by 2024, let’s have a functioning economy which will start growing,” he said.

Wickremesinghe is seen as an economic liberal and enjoys good relations with key lenders to his country, including India and China.

The priority for Sri Lanka must be “to get basic necessities in shortage right now to a level where people have enough energy and food to calm social instability,” said Kim Eng Tan, a sovereign analyst at S&P Global Ratings. After that, he said, the government could try to get the fiscal position in better shape and stabilize the economy.

Rajapaksa fled to Singapore via the Maldives last week, but other members of his family voted in Parliament on Wednesday.

Many Sri Lankans blame the economy’s collapse on the mismanagement and policy decisions of the Rajapaksa family, which until recently held top positions in the government, including the posts of the president, prime minister and finance minister.

Mahindananda Aluthgamage, a parliamentarian from Rajapaksa’s party, said Wickremesinghe was best placed to lead the country in its current crisis. “We need an experienced leader who can handle foreign governments, the IMF and get support from neighboring countries,” he said.