Sri Lanka’s new president is a ‘relic of an era’
Ranil Wickramasinghe is unlikely to calm the people furious with the economic crisis
The Parliament of Sri Lanka has chosen Raneel Wickramasinghe, who has repeatedly headed the country's government, as the new president. It was he who was instructed by legislators to lead the island republic after the previous head of state fled abroad due to riots. But replacing the old president with a new one is unlikely to immediately calm the Sri Lankans who are dissatisfied with the deep crisis.
Photo: Global Look Press
Ranil Wickramasinghe, 73, who became president, said that he had spent 45 years of his life in parliament and was happy that lawmakers honored him with becoming head of state.
In fact, presidents in Sri Lanka are usually elected by citizens during elections. But if the office of president for one reason or another becomes vacant before the official end of the term of office, the responsibility for electing the head of state lies with the parliament. In the history of the republic, this happened only once, when, after the assassination of President Ranasinghe Premadasa, the then Prime Minister Dingiri Banda Wijetunga was elected in 1993 by Parliament to the vacant seat (and this was done without alternative).
This time the elections were held on an alternative basis (although their outcome seemed predetermined to many) – according to the voting results, the winner received the support of 134 deputies. Center-left ex-Minister of Media Affairs Dullas Alahapperum came in second with 82 votes. And the candidate from the Marxist-Leninist “People's Liberation Front” Anur Kumar Dissanayaka received only three deputy votes.
“I don’t need to tell you what state our country is in,” the newly elected president of the Democratic Socialist Republic addressed the deputies Sri Lanka. “Now that the elections are over, we must put an end to this division.”
Now exiled in Singapore, Gotabaya Rajapaksa appointed Ranil Wickramasinghe as prime minister in May, hoping to bring stability to a country beset by the worst social and economic crisis in generations. And when Rajapaksa fled the country last week (first to the Maldives, and from there to Singapore) and submitted his resignation by e-mail, the head of government became acting president.
Rajapaksa flew abroad after protesters enraged by the country's economic collapse broke into his official residence and seized key government buildings.
A six-time prime minister and a former presidential candidate, Wickramasinghe has a reputation as a sophisticated heavyweight politician with extensive experience in diplomatic and international affairs. Suffice it to recall that under his premiership, an armistice agreement was reached with the Tamil separatists, which put an end to years of civil war. And this is its plus. But there is also a huge minus – it is unpopular among many Sri Lankans, who consider it the “birthmark” of the Rajapaksa regime. It is not surprising that after the election of a new president, a protesting public immediately gathered near the residence of the head of state, chanting “Run, go away.”
some analysts called him a “political dead man”.
It is worth noting that the presidency of Ranil Wickramasinghe will have a “truncated” character. The politician will perform the functions of the head of state not for the five years required by law, but only for the remainder of the term of his predecessor who resigned (expires in 2024). However, as president, Wickramasinghe now has the discretion to appoint a new prime minister.
Be that as it may, the new head of state will have a hard time. The economic crisis has left 22 million Sri Lankans facing shortages of basic necessities, including medicine, fuel and food. The government is negotiating assistance with the International Monetary Fund, promising to normalize the situation in the republic by next year. And against this background, the Sri Lankans have a reasonable question: will the new government have enough strength and resources to correct the situation in the economy and calm the public, enraged by the failures of the previous regime.
In addition to being prime minister but also finance minister Ranil, Wickramasinghe led negotiations with the IMF and spoke to parliament weekly to warn that the recovery from the crisis would be difficult. Despite his promises to “overhaul” the government, he will have to feel the obvious distrust of the public, who considers him a relic of the Rajapaksa era, whose rule led the country to an economic disaster.
Detractors accuse Wickramasinghe of going out of his way to protect the long-ruling Rajapaksa clan from any harm and making deals with this powerful but unpopular family in order to outwit political rivals.
And the echo of these accusations was felt even during the parliamentary vote. Few MPs dared to publicly say they would vote for Wickramasinghe, fearing they might repeat history when protesters burned down the homes of dozens of lawmakers loyal to the then president in May. By the way, the new head of state promised the injured deputies that the criminals would be severely punished.
Well, the activists from among the protesters promise to regroup their forces and continue the fight until the new president leaves power.
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