Sri Lanka’s parliament began voting on Wednesday to replace Gotabaya Rajapakse as president, who fled abroad after his palace was attacked by angry protesters, now facing a crackdown by his successor.
One by one, lawmakers entered the polling booths set up on the floor of the chamber to choose between three candidates to lead the crisis-ridden country.
“Members are reminded that it is an offense to take photographs of ballot papers or display them to others,” Parliamentary Secretary General Dhammika Dasanayak told them. There have been allegations of corruption and vote buying in previous elections.
Also Read | ‘Want to be happy again…,’ as Lankan lawmakers elect a new president
The winner will take charge of the bankrupt nation, which is negotiating a bailout with the IMF, with its 22 million people enduring severe shortages of food, fuel and medicine.
Outside parliament, hundreds of heavily armed troops and police stood guard, but there were no signs of protesters.
Analysts say the front-runner is Ranil Wickremesinghe, a six-time former prime minister who became interim president after his predecessor resigned, but is scorned by protesters who see him as a Rajapaksa ally.
Months of demonstrations over the unprecedented financial crisis culminated in Rajapakse announcing his resignation from Singapore last week, days after troops rescued the leader from a besieged compound.
His departure has wounded the once powerful ruling clan that has dominated Sri Lankan politics for the past two decades, after his brothers left their posts as prime minister and finance minister earlier this year.
Wickramasinghe, 73, has the support of the SLPP, the largest bloc in the 225-member parliament, in the election.
As interim president, Wickremesinghe has extended a state of emergency that gives police and security forces sweeping powers, and last week he ordered the army to evict protesters from occupied state buildings.
Wickremesinghe’s tough stance against the protesters is going down well with MPs who have been on the receiving end of mob violence and most SLPP MLAs will stand by him, an opposition MP said.
“Ranil is emerging as a law and order candidate,” Tamil MP Dharmalingam Sitadhan told AFP before the vote.
Political analyst Kusal Perera conceded that Wickramasinghe had a “slight advantage” in the August 2020 election, even though his own party secured only one seat.
“Ranil has regained the acceptance of the urban middle classes by restoring some supplies like gas and he has already cleared government buildings showing his firmness,” Perera said.
The competition is close as lobbying has intensified even before the polls. Two smaller parties will give their support to Wickramasinghe’s main opponent, Dallas Alahapperuma, while the Tamil party, which has two votes, said it was switching parties to support Wickramasinghe.
Observers believe Wickramasinghe will face a severe blow if he wins, and protesters will take to the streets demanding his resignation, accusing him of protecting Rajapaksa interests.
Former president Mahinda Rajapaksa, the elder brother of ousted Gotabaya and head of a clan that has dominated Sri Lankan politics for years, remains in the country and is urging SLPP lawmakers to support Wickremesinghe, party sources said.
A true consensus government
His main opponent in the vote is SLPP dissident and former education minister Alahapperuma, a former journalist, who is backed by the opposition.
Alahapperuma vowed this week to form “a true consensus government for the first time in our history”.
If he wins, the 63-year-old is expected to name opposition leader Sajith Premadasa as his prime minister. Premadasa’s father Ranasinghe ruled the country with an iron fist in the 1980s when Alahapperuma was a rights activist.
A third candidate is Anura Dissanayake, 53, leader of the left-wing People’s Liberation Front (JVP), whose coalition holds three parliamentary seats.
Legislators rank candidates in order of preference, requiring more than half the votes to win.
If no one crosses the first preference threshold, the candidate with the least support is eliminated and their votes are distributed according to the second preference.
The new leader will serve for the remainder of Rajapaksa’s term, which runs until November 2024.
If Wickramasinghe is confirmed for the post, he is expected to name his schoolmate and strong Rajapaksa loyalist Public Administration Minister Dinesh Gunawardena, 73, as the new prime minister.