Sri Lanka to witness three-way contest for Presidency

Ranil Wickremesinghe, Dullas Alahapperuma and Anura Kumara Dissanayake in the fray; Sajith Premadasa withdraws bid

Ranil Wickremesinghe, Dullas Alahapperuma and Anura Kumara Dissanayake in the fray; Sajith Premadasa withdraws bid

Sri Lanka will witness a three-cornered race for Presidency on Wednesday, as the island awaits a new leader and government after an astounding people’s uprising ousted Gotabaya Rajapaksa last week.

Acting President Ranil Wickremesinghe; the formerly Rajapaksa-aligned, and now independent Dullas Alahapperuma; and the leftist Anura Kumara Dissanayake were on Tuesday nominated by parties in Parliament, a day ahead of the poll through a secret ballot.

Although Opposition Leader Sajith Premadasa had earlier announced he would contest, he withdrew his bid on Tuesday morning. “For the greater good of my country that I love and the people I cherish I hereby withdraw my candidacy for the position of President. @sjbsrilanka [Samagi Jana Balawegaya – SJB or United People’s Power] and our alliance and our opposition partners will work hard towards making @DullasOfficial victorious,” he said in a tweet, pledging support for Mr. Alahapperuma.

Mr. Premadasa later urged India to help Sri Lanka regardless of Wednesday’s outcome in the key vote. “Irrespective of who becomes the President of Sri Lanka tomorrow it is my humble and earnest request to Hon. PM Shri @narendramodi, to all the political parties of India and to the people of India to keep helping mother Lanka and it’s people to come out of this disaster,” he said in a tweet on Tuesday evening.

The Rajapaksas’ Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP or People’s Front) dominates the legislature with well over 100 seats. But some of its legislators have more recently been sitting “independently” in the House, apparently distancing themselves from the Rajapaksa clan and their party, widely discredited during Sri Lanka’s devastating economic crisis.

The party appears divided on its preferred Presidential candidate as Mr. Gotabaya’s successor. Its general secretary Sagara Kariyawasam recently announced that the SLPP would back Acting President Mr. Wickremesinghe, while chairman G.L. Peiris has pledged support for Mr. Alahapperuma, who was earlier with the Rajapaksa camp. While political sources indicate that the Rajapaksa family is firmly backing Mr. Wickremesinghe, it remains to be seen how members of their party might vote.

The SJB currently has around 50 seats in the 225-member House, following recent defections of some of its members. The opposition Tamil National Alliance (TNA), with 10 members in Parliament, will support Mr. Alahapperuma, Alliance spokesman M.A. Sumanthiran announced on Tuesday night. Mr. Dissanayake’s Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) has three seats. The Tamil Progressive Alliance (TPA), a party representing Malaiyaha Tamils with five SJB-aligned MPs, on Tuesday pledged support to Mr. Alahapperuma, as did the Sri Lanka Muslim Congress (SLMC). The Tamil National People’s Front (TNPF), which has two MPs from Jaffna, announced its decision to boycott the vote as the candidates “appeared reluctant to resolve the decades-long Tamil national question”. 

With the SLPP still holding majority in the House, all Presidential aspirants would need the support of some of its members to win the vote. Their success would depend on how the independent lawmakers vote, and the extent of the split in the SLPP. Going by public statements made by party leaders so far, it appears Mr. Alahapperuma has an advantage, but given that MPs will vote in a secret ballot, nothing is certain till the actual results are announced on Wednesday.

For six-time premier and Acting President Mr. Wickremesinghe, this is arguably the closest he has been to clinching the Presidency. However, with Mr. Premadasa pulling out of the race and throwing his weight behind Mr. Alahapperuma, the contest may have just got harder for him.

Further, on Tuesday, trade unions and anti-government demonstrators agitated against a possible Wickremesinghe presidency. He was “part of the Rajapaksa government and its enabler,” they charged. Mr. Wickremesinghe, however, had told CNN in an interview on Monday: “I am not the same.”

Some protesters also slammed Mr. Alahapperuma’s long-time affiliation to the “racist Rajapaksa regime”, and asked how citizens, especially Tamils, could expect him to deliver justice to the community. Perhaps aware of his image among the island’s ethnic minorities, Mr. Alahapperuma, while announcing his candidacy on July 15, promised to “embark on a new, constructive course” towards economic prosperity while upholding “rule of law and maintaining ethnic solidarity”.

The last time Sri Lanka elected its President through Parliament was in 1993, following the assassination of then President Ranasinghe Premadasa. D.B. Wijetunga was then unanimously elected to the top office to complete Mr. Premadasa’s term.

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