Sri Lanka’s parliament elects six-time prime minister Ranil Wickremesinghe as president

Sri Lanka’s parliament has chosen six-time Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe as president to succeed the ousted leader who fled the country amid an economic crisis.

“I thank parliament for this honour,” the 73-year-old said after his victory was announced by the secretary-general of the legislature.

He secured 134 votes in the 225-member house, while his main rival, ruling party politician Dullas Alahapperuma, got 82. The Marxist candidate, Anura Dissanayake, won three votes.

Mr Wickremesinghe became acting president after Gotabaya Rajapaksa fled the country last week and resigned by email.

He will serve the remainder of Mr Rajapaksa’s term, which ends in 2024. As president, Mr Wickremesinghe now has the discretion to appoint a new prime minister.

Presidents in Sri Lanka are normally elected by the public. The responsibility falls on parliament only if the office of president becomes vacant before a term officially ends.

Two men greet each other with clasped hands as a third looks on
Ranil Wickremesinghe (right) was sworn in as acting president last week.(Sri Lankan President’s Office via AP)

That has happened only once before in Sri Lanka, when then-prime minister Dingiri Banda Wijetunga was chosen by parliament uncontested in 1993 after former president Ranasinghe Premadasa, father of the current opposition leader, was assassinated.

Mr Wickremesinghe is a seasoned politician with wide experience in diplomatic and international affairs.

He has been leading crucial talks on an economic bailout package with the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and was backed by members of the fragmented ruling coalition.

Ranil Wickremesinghe unpopular among Sri Lankans

But he is unpopular among voters, who view him as a holdover from Mr Rajapaksa’s government.

About 20 protesters pose in celebration after scaling a government office in Sri Lanka.
Demonstrators have protested against soaring inflation and shortages of fuel and other vital goods.(AP: Eranga Jayawardena)

Hundreds of thousands of demonstrators took to the streets earlier this month to vent their fury at soaring inflation, shortages of fuel and other vital goods, regular power blackouts and what they see as corruption among the ruling elite.

While the focus of their ire was Mr Rajapaksa, a member of the country’s most powerful political dynasty before the crisis, they also demanded that Mr Wickremesinghe stand down — something he refused to do.

Mr Wickremesinghe’s victory in parliament came after he secured the backing of many within the main party, Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP), that is dominated by the Rajapaksa family.

He took over as prime minister in May after the former president’s elder brother, Mahinda Rajapaksa, quit from the position following clashes between pro and anti-government protesters that triggered a deadly wave of violence.

Since then, Mr Wickremesinghe has been involved in negotiations with the IMF for a potential bailout package, besides working on an interim budget to slash government expenditure.

‘Politics is a bloodsport’

Born into a prominent family of politicians and businessmen with large interests in the media, a 29-year-old Mr Wickremesinghe was made the country’s youngest cabinet minister by his uncle, President Junius Jayewardene, in 1978.

Sri Lanka's new prime minister Ranil Wickremesinghe gestures during an interview
Ranil Wickremesinghe has built relationships with China and India(AP: Eranga Jayawardena)

In 1994, following assassinations that wiped out several of his senior colleagues, Mr Wickremesinghe became leader of the United National Party.

Unlike the Rajapaksas, he has little support beyond wealthy urban voters — although that hasn’t stopped him from repeatedly finding a way back to the premiership.

On July 9, Mr Wickremesinghe announced that he was willing to step down as prime minister as protesters swarmed through central Colombo and set a part of his personal residence ablaze.

An economic liberal who has experience of dealing with the IMF from his previous tenure, Mr Wickremesinghe has also built relationships with China and India, the Asian giants that have long jostled for influence over the Indian Ocean island.

Critics blame him for stalling multiple investigations against the Rajapaksa family, including on human rights and corruption allegations — an accusation he has denied.

Mr Wickremesinghe’s refusal to relinquish party leadership led to the formation of the Samagi Jana Balawegaya (SJB), whose leader Sajith Premadasa was also a presidential contender.

As parliament met to finalise nominees for the post on Tuesday, Mr Premadasa abruptly dropped out of the race and announced he would support Mr Alahapperuma. Ultimately it was not enough to sway the vote.

“Politics is more than chess,” Mr Wickremesinghe said in a television interview in 2014.

“It’s teamwork like cricket. It is how you must have the stamina for a marathon. It’s a hard game like rugger and it is a bloodsport like boxing.”

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Ranil Wickremesinghe elected as new Sri Lankan President.

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