COLOMBO, Sri Lanka (AP) — Sri Lankan lawmakers chose six-time Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe as president Wednesday to succeed the ousted leader who fled the country in a vote that risks reigniting political turmoil in the troubled South Asian island nation.
He said he has spent 45 years of his life in Parliament and is happy it has given him the honor of becoming president. “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 dialog with you,” he said, asking other political parties to work with him.
Former President Gotabaya Rajapaksa appointed Wickremesinghe as prime minister in May, hoping to bring stability to a country engulfed in its worst economic crisis in memory. Wickremesinghe became acting president after Rajapaksa fled the country last week and resigned by email.
Wickremesinghe, 73, is a seasoned politician with wide experience in diplomatic and international affairs. But he is unpopular among voters who view him as a holdover from Rajapaksa’s government. Protesters outside the president’s residence were chanting “Go home, Ranil” after his election.
The vote of 134 lawmakers put Wickremesinghe ahead of former government minister Dullas Alahapperuma, who received 82 votes. The Marxist candidate had three.
Wickremesinghe will serve the remainder of Rajapaksa’s term, which ends in 2024. Rajapaksa fled the country and resigned by email last week after protesters furious over the country’s economic collapse stormed his official residence and took over key state buildings.
As president, 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.
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.
The economic crisis has left Sri Lanka’s 22 million people struggling with shortages of essentials including medicine, fuel and food while the government negotiates a bailout with the International Monetary Fund. And the resulting political crisis has left worries about whether a new government will be enough to fix the economy and placate a public furious at its politicians’ failures.
Serving in a double role as the finance minister, Wickremesinghe has been leading the crucial IMF talks. He has delivered weekly addresses in Parliament cautioning that the path out of the crisis would be difficult, while also pledging to overhaul a government that increasingly has concentrated power under the presidency.
The public, however, sees him as a holdover from the Rajapaksa government that led the country into economic catastrophe.
Only a few lawmakers had publicly said they would vote for Wickremesinghe given the hostility against him. Dozens of lawmakers loyal to Rajapaksa whose homes were burned down by protesters in May were said to be backing Wickremesinghe on the assurance that he would severely punish the perpetrators and maintain law and order.
All 225 members of Parliament including the speaker were eligible to vote on the ranked-choice ballot. Two members abstained and a few ballots were declared invalid.