Sri Lanka’s prime minister was elected president on Wednesday by lawmakers who opted for a seasoned, seasoned leader to lift the country out of the economic collapse, despite widespread public opposition.
Ranil Wickremesinghe, an aide to ousted President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, whose term he is ending after resigning from the country, urged fellow lawmakers to unite to save the nation.
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“People are not expecting old politics from us, they expect us to work together,” he told Parliament.
But he is a divisive figure, unpopular among masses fed up with a lack of food, fuel and medicine, and critics question whether he can muster political height and public support to get the job done.
Wickremesinghe was appointed prime minister by Rajapaksa in May after angry protests forced Rajapaksa’s brother Mahinda Rajapaksa to step down and take refuge in a naval base.
Gotabaya Rajapaksa fled Sri Lanka earlier this month, submitting his resignation by email, and Wickremesinghe became acting president, as well as prime minister and finance minister, ahead of Wednesday’s vote.
He immediately declared a state of emergency after protesters stormed the Rashtrapati Bhavan and several other government buildings last week.
This gave them broad powers to act in the interest of public safety and order, enabling the authorities to conduct searches and detain people. Wickremesinghe also had the right to change or suspend any law.
At the age of 73, Wickremesinghe has served six times as Prime Minister. Rajapaksa chose him because he tried to restore Sri Lanka’s credibility after he stopped paying off Sri Lanka’s $ 51 billion foreign debt.
As the protests grew, he became the public face of the crisis, delivering weekly speeches in parliament, pledging to raise taxes and overhaul a government that had increasingly concentrated power under the presidency, allowing the country to Helped to get into trouble.
He is leading negotiations on a bailout package with the International Monetary Fund.
Opponents have accused Wickremesinghe of protecting the Rajapaksa family, who are widely blamed for ravaging the country with allegations of corruption and other wrongdoings.
Protesters stormed Wickremesinghe’s office premises and demanded his resignation, just days before lawmakers elected him president. His private residence was burnt.
Wickremesinghe’s victory on Wednesday was a retaliation for his United National Party – one of the country’s main and oldest parties after a humiliating 2020 election defeat – which left him its only legislator.
Backed by Rajapaksa’s ruling party, he garnered 134 votes, far more than former government minister Dullas Alhapparuma supported by the opposition. He got 82 votes.
Before the vote, some lawmakers had publicly stated that they would vote for Wickremesinghe, given the widespread public hostility against him – but dozens loyal to Rajapaksa were expected to support him as he assured them that They will give severe punishment to the protesters who attacked the homes of politicians. during the unrest.
Born into a wealthy, politically active family whose fortunes were made in wood and media, Wickremesinghe has served as a legislator for 45 years. His reputation as prime minister suffered damage in a difficult power-sharing arrangement with then-president Maithripala Sirisena.
A communication breakdown between them was blamed on intelligence lapses, which led to a terror attack in 2019 that devastated tourism even before the devastating hit from the pandemic.
He earned a law degree from the University of Colombo and practiced as a lawyer before entering politics in 1977, becoming the youngest MP at the time. He was first appointed Prime Minister in 1993 and was also the Leader of the Opposition for over a decade.
Wickremesinghe has generally kept the details of his personal life a secret. He is married to Maitri Wickremesinghe, a professor and specialist in gender and women’s studies.
Read more: Sri Lankan Parliament elects Ranil Wickremesinghe as next President