Colombo, Sri Lanka ( Associated Press) – Sri Lankan lawmakers on Wednesday elected the unpopular prime minister as their new president, a choice that risked turmoil in the South Asian nation battling economic collapse.
The crisis has already ousted a Sri Lankan leader, and a few hundred protesters quickly gathered after the vote to express their indignation that Ranil Wickremesinghe – a six-time prime minister whom they see as part of the problematic political establishment Let’s see – will remain in power.
Read more: Sri Lanka’s acting president declares emergency as protests escalate
Sri Lankans have been taking to the streets for months demanding their top leaders step down as the country plunges into economic chaos, leaving its 22 million people reeling from shortages of essentials, including medicine, fuel and food. After protesters stormed the Rashtrapati Bhavan and several other government buildings last week, President Gotabaya Rajapaksa fled and then resigned.
Most of the protesters’ anger has centered on the political dynasty of Rajapaksa and his family, which ruled Sri Lanka for the past two decades. But many also blame Wickremesinghe for protecting Rajapaksa, and last week during demonstrations mobs torched his private residence 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 end his presidential term in 2024. He can now also appoint a new prime minister.
“I don’t need to tell you which state our country is in,” Wickremesinghe, 73, told fellow lawmakers after announcing his victory. “People are not expecting old politics from us, they expect us to work together.”
He urged the country to move on: “Now that the election is over, we have to end this division.”
But the protesters instead rushed to the presidential residence, “Raniel, go home.”
“We are deeply saddened, deeply disappointed by the 225 Members of Parliament whom we have chosen to speak for themselves, which they have not done,” said Visaka Jayavare, a performance artist in the crowd. We will continue to fight for the people of Sri Lanka. We have to ask for general elections.”
Wickremesinghe has vast experience in diplomatic and international affairs – he said on Wednesday he spent 45 years of his life in parliament – and has led talks with the International Monetary Fund on a bailout package for the bankrupt country.
But many voters view him with skepticism as he was appointed prime minister by Rajapaksa in May in the hope that he would restore stability.
Protesters accused Rajapaksa and his powerful family of extorting money from the state exchequer and hastening the country’s collapse by mismanaging the economy. The family has denied allegations of corruption, but the former president acknowledged that some of his policies contributed to Sri Lanka’s recession.
The struggle will continue till our demands are met. (Wickramasinghe) does not have the mandate to rule the country,” said human resources professional Nemel Jayaveera. “We will oppose him.”
Still, the ruling party’s majority in parliament gave Wickremesinghe a victory in Wednesday’s vote with 134 votes. Populist Dullas Alhapparuma, a long-time ally of Rajapaksa and a minister in his government, scored 82 points, while a Marxist candidate scored three.
The vote shown on national television was a sobering, serious affair. Though voting was secret, as soon as the results were announced, MPs thumped their tables in support of their candidates.
Read more: Sri Lankan lawmakers begin process to replace President
After voting, some supporters took to the streets to celebrate Wickremesinghe’s victory. He will take oath on Thursday.
Only a few lawmakers publicly said they would vote in the face of widespread hostility against Wickremesinghe – but dozens of Rajapaksa loyalists were expected to support him as he assured them they would punish those protesters severely. Those who had burnt down the houses of politicians in the unrest.
On Monday, in his role as acting president, Wickremesinghe declared a state of emergency that gave him broad powers to act in the interest of public safety and order. Officers can search and detain people, and Wickremesinghe can change or suspend any law.
The political turmoil in Sri Lanka has only worsened the economic disaster. But Wickremesinghe said on Monday that talks with the IMF are about to end, while talks on help from other countries have also progressed. He also said that the government has taken steps to address the shortage of fuel and cooking gas.
Hours before Wednesday’s vote, IMF Managing Director Kristalina Georgieva told financial magazine Nikkei Asia that the organization expects rescue talks to be completed “as quickly as possible”.
As prime minister, Wickremesinghe gave a weekly speech in parliament, warning that the way out of the crisis would be difficult, as well as pledging to replace a government that has more and more power under the presidency.
The President in Sri Lanka is usually elected by the people. The responsibility falls on Parliament only if the presidency becomes vacant before the term officially ends.
This has happened only once before in Sri Lanka when the then Prime Minister Dingiri Banda Wijetunga was elected unopposed by Parliament in 1993, when the father of the current opposition leader, former President Ranasinghe Premadasa, was assassinated.
Associated Press writer Bharat Mallavarachi contributed to this report.