Prime minister and leader of opposition are front-runners
Position comes vacant with President Rajapaksa’s resignation
By Sudhi Ranjan Sen and Anusha Ondaatjie
(Bloomberg) — The race to select Sri Lanka’s next president has begun as Gotabaya Rajapaksa stepped down after fleeing to Singapore. The support of both lawmakers and protesters will be crucial for the new leader with the bankrupt country in bailout talks with the International Monetary Fund.
The South Asian island nation is going through the worst economic and political crisis since its independence in 1948. Food, fuel and medicines are in short supply as inflation is seen touching 70%.
Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe — who had also promised to resign but is now interim president instead — imposed a state of emergency across Sri Lanka. That’s after protesters occupied his office, took control of the state broadcaster briefly, and attempted to storm parliament.
Sri Lanka’s parliament will meet Saturday to start the process of selecting the next president. Nominations will be called on July 19 and a vote taken on July 20. The process would wrap up in seven days, Mahinda Yapa Abeywardena, the Speaker of the parliament said Friday. The new president could hold office for the remaining two years of Rajapaksa’s term before a fresh election in 2024.
Here are the leading contenders for the job:
Ranil Wickremesinghe, 73
Photographer: Buddhika Weerasinghe/Bloomberg
A lawyer by training, Wickremesinghe was first elected to the legislature in the late 1970s and had an unbroken streak in parliament until 2020, when his party was trounced after the Easter Sunday bombings.
As interim president, he will lead the race if he garners the support of Rajapaksa’s Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna party, which held a clear majority in the legislature until factions emerged in recent months. Wickremesinghe’s party didn’t win a single seat in the 2020 election but he returned as lawmaker through a system where parties with enough votes can nominate a member under the “national list.”
Wickremesinghe has allies across party lines and is an acceptable face globally — a qualification that will weigh in his favor as the bankrupt island nation negotiates a bailout program with the IMF. After all, Wickremesinghe, who has been prime minster five times before his current turn at the job, is viewed as something of a survivor in Sri Lankan politics.
Yet, he’s not immune to the anger on the streets of Sri Lanka that forced Rajapaksa’s exit. Over the weekend protesters burnt down his private residence. He was whisked away to safety and his whereabouts are not known.
Sri Lanka Leader Names Opponent as PM in Push for Unity
Sajith Premadasa, 55
Source: AFP/Getty Images
The leader of the main opposition Samagi Jana Balawegaya party was a member of Wickremesinghe’s United National Party, that he joined in the 1990s, shortly after his father and then-President Ranasinghe Premadasa was assassinated by a Tamil suicide bomber.
He parted ways with Wickremesinghe in early 2020, ahead of parliamentary elections that year.
Before emerging as leader of the opposition, and a contender for the top post, Premadasa has held several cabinet posts, including that of health, housing construction and culture, working alongside Wickremesinghe and former President Maithripala Sirisena.
Earlier this year as Sri Lanka’s economic crisis deepened, sparking nationwide protests and forcing Rajapaksa’s cabinet to resign, Premadasa’s name came up as a contender for the prime minister’s job. Rajapaksa is said to have offered him the position but it fell through as Premadasa demanded an end to the sweeping powers of the president’s office and called for fresh elections instead.
Premadasa’s own SJB party doesn’t have the numbers to get him to the top post and will need the support of members from Rajapaksa’s party and minority parties.
Mahinda Yapa Abeywardena, 76
Source: AFP/Getty Images
The current speaker of Sri Lanka’s parliament could emerge as a consensus president if there is deadlock over who should helm the country through the current crisis. However, he is also the deputy chairman of the ruling SLPP and is known to be a loyalist to Mahinda Rajapaksa, the former strongman leader and Gotabaya’s older brother, who heads the party. The continued influence of the Rajapaksa family, through Yapa Abeywardena, could make him unpalatable to protesters and even some lawmakers.
He is another survivor who has been active in politics for more than 30 years. He served as chief minister for the southern province for seven years until 2001 and was widely credited with rebuilding some of the infrastructure in the region. Yapa Abeywardena has taken on a couple of ministerial roles, the most prominent being the agriculture portfolio.
In his early days as a lawmaker, Yapa Abeywardena was one of two government parliamentarians that voted against the 1987 Indo-Sri Lanka accord that was supposed to resolve the civil war by giving power to the provinces, withdrawing troops and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Elam laying down their arms. But the deal never materialized and the war raged on.
Dullas Alahapperuma, 63
Source: AFP/Getty Images
Alahapperuma is an ally of the former president’s brother Mahinda Rajapaksa, who served as president for a decade from 2005-2015 and became premier in Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s government before being forced to resign in May. He entered politics when he won a provincial seat in 1993, eventually serving as provincial minister for cultural affairs.
He has been with Rajapaksa’s SLPP and was the party leader for his home base of Matara in southern Sri Lanka 2016. His wife, a famous singer, told a local newspaper that year “I appreciate him as a politician but prefer the journalist in him,” referring to the time he wrote about social injustice for radical Sinhala-language tabloids as a student.
Alahapperuma is likely to be nominated by an alliance consisting of lawmakers from the main opposition, the Sri Lankan Freedom Party and a breakaway faction of the ruling SLPP. Local media said the alliance met on July 11 and wanted to put forward Alahapperuma as president and Premadasa as the prime minister in the new government.
Sarath Fonseka, 71
Source: AFP/Getty Images
The retired army general is a war-hero in Sri Lanka for leading the military as it crushed a more than quarter century long insurgency by the Tamil guerrilla fighters. He threw his hat in the ring Thursday, saying he was ready to step up for the president’s job if a majority of lawmakers supported him. A faction of Rajapaksa’s SLPP is also supporting him, he said.
The former military officer would be a strong opponent for Wickremesinghe. He’s appealed to the armed forces on the ground to hold back from implementing the acting president’s emergency orders.
Once close to the Rajapaksas, he became a political opponent, challenging former President Mahinda Rajapaksa in elections in 2010 after being moved to a largely ceremonial military post and being accused of attempting a coup. Troops ringed Fonseka’s poll headquarters in a Colombo hotel as votes were counted in the ballot that re-elected Rajapaksa with the strongest mandate in 16 years.
Rajapaksa Approves Release of Former Sri Lankan Army Chief
The former army chief was arrested a month later, a move that prompted opposition protests and accusations the government intended to prevent Fonseka from participating in parliamentary elections later that year. The arrest also followed reports he was prepared to testify in an international court on war crimes charges against the Sri Lankan government for actions during its final push in the war, Amnesty International said after his detention.
He was acquitted of all charges by President Maithripala Sirisena in 2021 and given complete amnesty.
To contact the reporters on this story:
Sudhi Ranjan Sen in New Delhi at [email protected]; Anusha Ondaatjie in Colombo at [email protected]
To contact the editors responsible for this story: Niluksi Koswanage at [email protected] Muneeza Naqvi, Jeanette Rodrigues
This document is being provided for the exclusive use of SUDHI RANJAN SEN at BLOOMBERG/ NEWSROOM: NEW DELHI. Not for redistribution.
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