Sri Lanka’s Parliament this Wednesday elected a new President: Ranil Wickremesinghe, the country’s Prime Minister and one of the politicians singled out during the popular revolt that caused the ouster of President Gotabaya Rajapaksa last week. After Rajapaksa’s flight to Singapore and subsequent resignation, Wickremesinghe was sworn in as interim president. However, the chamber had to elect a new president in a bid to reverse the country’s course in the worst economic crisis since independence from the UK in 1948. Hundreds of thousands of citizens ousted the government after the July 9 storming of the presidential palace.
The election of Wickremesinghe does not bode well, at least for the preservation of social peace. The camp, which has been located in Galle Force Park on the Colombo coast since last April, has called for the departure of President Rajapaksa, who protesters accuse of profiting at their expense. But also that of his Prime Minister Wickremesinghe. After the historic attack on the palace, both announced that they would step down before Wednesday, July 13, but they did not keep their promise. That day, protesters occupied the prime minister’s offices for a few hours, leaving images for history, while young protesters walked through the colonial palace under the eyes of the military.
Yes go home [por Gotabaya, nombre de pila del expresidente] was the motto of the protests and the only unifying element of the demonstrators, they were soon joined by another demand: the resignation of Wickremesinghe, a veteran Sri Lankan politician whom they regard as an ally of the Rajapaksa and whom they also blame for the country’s disastrous economic management led to bankruptcy. Intensification of protests led to Rajapaksa’s renunciation of his brother Mahinda as prime minister in May. Then Wickremesinghe took over.
In the parliamentary vote this Wednesday, the new president received 134 votes (out of a total of 225) against his main rival Dullas Alahapperuma. Wickremesinghe has won the majority of the ruling Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP) party, which commands a large majority thanks to Rajapaksa’s landslide victory in the 2019 election. The party has always tried to privilege the Sinhala majority and Buddhists over Tamil Muslim minorities. However, the popular uprising has united all ethnic and religious groups for the same goal: to overthrow the president.
“We are facing great challenges”
The new president must now resume negotiations with the International Monetary Fund (IMF) for a $3,000 million cash injection. It will also continue to seek help from China, one of its main creditors, to get back on the path to economic recovery. The lack of foreign exchange – partly due to the decline in tourism – has left Sri Lanka unable to import basic necessities such as fuel, causing terrible social unrest.
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Wickremesinghe, a 73-year-old lawyer who has served as prime minister six times, is confident his seniority, business experience and strong ties with China and India will help the country move forward. “Our country faces great challenges and we must work on a new strategy to meet people’s aspirations,” he said in a conciliatory message collected by Reuters agency after the win. The mandate ends in 2024, but it will be necessary to see how the street reaction in Sri Lanka is now and whether his parliamentary victory will be accepted or provoke a new wave of protests.