Sri Lanka’s prime minister, Ranil Wickremesinghe, has been elected as president to replace the ousted Gotabaya Rajapaksa, a result that is likely to provoke turmoil among protesters who have been calling for weeks for him to resign.
Wickremesinghe, who has been prime minister six times but never president, won a comfortable victory in parliament on Wednesday morning, where MPs voted for the new president in an unprecedented secret ballot. The vote came after protesters forced Rajapaksa from office amid anger over a spiralling economic crisis.
Wickremesinghe, who comes from an old political lineage, faces a tough road ahead as Sri Lanka continues to be crippled by the worst economic crisis since independence, with shortages of food and fuel, and also grapples with a deep crisis of trust in parliament.
Wickremesinghe’s election follows a dramatic week in Sri Lanka, during which Rajapaksa was toppled after his offices and presidential palace were stormed by thousands of protesters, who jumped in his pool and worked out in his gym. Amid the anger, Rajapaksa was forced to flee to Singapore via the Maldives and his resignation was formally announced last Friday.
This was the first time in Sri Lanka’s history that a sitting president has been toppled midterm by a mass protest movement
There has been fierce resistance and protests on the streets against a Wickremesinghe presidency. Though he had offered to resign as protests engulfed the streets last week, he did not, and instead accepted the role of acting president after Rajapaksa stepped down.
Many fear Wickremesinghe will protect the Rajapaksas from being held accountable, as he has been accused of doing in the past, and would not instigate the constitutional change being demanded by the protest movement, including an end to the system of executive presidency.
“I am disappointed but not surprised by this result because our politicians have repeatedly shown that they are more concerned about protecting the Rajapaksa cartel than doing what’s right for the country,” said Harini Fernando, 37, a social entrepreneur who was among those who joined a rally against Wickremesinghe on Wednesday afternoon.
“Ranil has bent the constitution like a pretzel in order to make sure he can retain power. This proves, once again, that our politicians don’t stand for real democracy.”
In recent days, Wickremesinghe, who declared a state of emergency this week, had made statements calling protesters “fascists” and indicating he would not be afraid to crack down on the demonstrations . Less than an hour after he was declared president, a court order was issued prohibiting anyone from congregating within a 50-metre radius of a statue that stands at Galle Face in Colombo, where anti-government protesters have been camped out for months.
Speaking to reporters outside a Buddhist temple he was visiting on Wednesday afternoon, Wickremesinghe made it clear he would not tolerate those he perceived to be stirring up violence.
“If you try to topple the government, occupy the president’s office and the prime minister’s office, that is not democracy; it is against the law,” he said.
“We will deal with them firmly according to the law. We will not allow a minority of protesters to suppress the aspirations of the silent majority clamouring for a change in the political system.”
However, people defied the order and dozens gathered on the steps of the president’s offices, which are still occupied by the protest movement, to shout rallying cries of “deal Ranil” – a reference to Wickremesinghe’s reputation as a scheming politician – as well as “Ranil bank robber”, referring to a bank bond scam he was implicated in. Hundreds of police and military stood on the periphery but did not interfere in the rally.
Father Jeevantha Peiris, a Catholic priest who has been a protest leader, said that “parliament today have taken a decision against the people’s will” and emphasised that peaceful protest would continue until Wickremesinghe resigned.
“The people of Sri Lanka wanted a just system, a democratic system, but we know Ranil Wickremesinghe was brought in by the Rajapaksa regime to cover up their brutal system,” he added.
Wickremesinghe, 73, won the election with backing of the ruling Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna party (SLPP), which has the most seats in parliament. He was seen as the candidate favoured by the Rajapaksa family, who despite no longer being in power have significant influence over the party they formed.
Wickremesinghe beat competition from another SLPP MP, Dullas Alahapperuma, who was part of a breakaway group and who had formed a coalition with the major opposition parties. However, it appeared that in the vote most of the ruling party MPs had rallied behind Wickremesinghe and secured his victory with 134 votes out of 219, while Alahapperuma got just 82.
In a speech after his victory was declared, Wickremesinghe asked opposition parties to work with him. “I need not tell you the status our country is in. Now that the election is over we have to end this division. We had 48 hours to stay divided but from now on I am ready to have a dialogue with you,” he said.
Present in the parliamentary chamber for the vote were three members of the Rajapaksa family who remain MPs, including Gotabaya’s older brother, the former president and prime minister Mahinda. It was the first public outing for the family since Gotabaya Rajapaksa was forced to flee the country.
Wickremesinghe has more than four decades of experience in politics and has pitched himself as an experienced and capable pair of hands to guide Sri Lanka through its worst political and economic crisis in its history, and in particular help the country negotiate a critical bailout from the International Monetary Fund.
However, his legitimacy among voters has been tainted by his close relationship to the Rajapaksa family, and many have accused him of having no political legitimacy or mandate, as he was appointed into the prime minister role by Gotabaya Rajapaksa and has little support among voters.
Wickremesinghe is due to serve for the rest of Rajapaksa’s term, until November 2024. However, there are concerns his election signals an unstable future for Sri Lankan politics, with protesters vowing to unseat him just as they did Rajapaksa.
“Ranil will be chased away, he is a crook and he doesn’t have a mandate,” said Anura Goonaratna, 53, a toy exporter. “This protest movement is going to get worse. There has to be an end to this and the only ending we will accept is throwing Ranil out, whatever it takes.”