For the first time in 44 years, Sri Lanka's Parliament will directly elect a President on Wednesday in a three-way contest, with last minute political maneuvering projecting a close fight between acting President Ranil Wickremesinghe and Dullas Alahapperuma, a rebel leader of the ruling party who is backed by the opposition as well as a majority of lawmakers from his parent party.
Wickremesinghe, Alahapperuma and leftist Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) leader Anura Kumara Dissanayake were proposed by lawmakers on Tuesday as the three candidates for the July 20 presidential election to pick the successor to Gotabaya Rajapaksa after he resigned following a popular uprising against his government for mismanaging the economy that forced him to flee the country.
A majority of members of the ruling Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP) party was in favour of nominating Alahapperuma, a leader of its breakaway faction, for the post of the President and principal Opposition leader Sajith Premadasa as the Prime Minister, Chairman of the SLPP, G L Peiris, said on Tuesday, ahead of Wednesday's presidential election.
Although analysts here believe that 73-year-old Wickremesinghe is in the lead, the evidence of numbers in the 225-assembly don’t necessarily suggest it would be plain sailing. Without the ruling SLPP's backing, Wickremesinghe would be a non-starter as he only has his seat in Parliament to be in the reckoning.
Going back to the original parliamentary composition in August 2020, the SLPP number of 145 had seen reversals with 52 of the lawmakers breaking away. The total of 93 later became 97 with 4 lawmakers returning.
Wickremesinghe needs 16 more votes to cross the magical figure of 113 in the 225-member house. He relies on at least 9 of the 12 Tamil party votes plus enough defectors from the main opposition Samagi Jana Balawegaya (SJB), most of whom are his followers having been introduced to politics by him.
In a politically significant move, Premadasa, the leader of the principal opposition party SJB, on Tuesday backed out in favour of Alahapperuma.
The SJB’s original 54 was recently down to 48 and later swelled to 50 after two lawmakers returned. With the SJB bag of 50, plus Alahapperuma’s own 10 lawmakers and 28 from other SLPP breakaways his final tally could reach about 90. So he needs about 25 from the SLPP.
However, the most decisive factor which could swing it towards Wickremesinghe is the personal insecurity of the SLPP MPs. Over 70 of them suffered arson attacks with one murdered.
"The most decisive factor will be personal security. Even those whose houses were not damaged they fear they can be under threat. They need someone who can take firm decisions," Kusal Perera, a columnist, said.
He said Wickremesinghe had shown enough intent to be able to bring the security situation under control already. Vajira Abeywardena, a key Wickremesinghe aide, predicted that the acting president would emerge the runaway winner with 125 votes.
Meanwhile, SLPP Chairman Peiris said that the majority of his party was in favour of appointing Alahapperuma as the President, underlining that the people’s voice be highlighted in Parliament.
Peiris added that the SLPP lawmakers have agreed to appoint 55-year-old Premadasa as the Prime Minister.
Peiris said both parties must come together and govern the country and implement a programme to realise the aspirations of the citizens, the report said. Wednesday’s vote would also be a rare occasion when the House Speaker will vote.
Never in the history of the presidency since 1978, Parliament had voted to elect a president. Presidential elections in 1982, 1988, 1994, 1999, 2005, 2010, 2015 and 2019 had elected them by popular vote.
The only previous occasion when the presidency became vacant mid-term was in 1993 when president Ranasinghe Premadasa was assassinated. DB Wijetunga was unanimously endorsed by Parliament to run the balance of Premadasa’s term. The new president will serve the remaining tenure of Rajapaksa till November 2024.
Meanwhile, security has been beefed up in and around Parliament complex on Tuesday after the Speaker lodged a complaint with the Inspector General of Police calling for a detailed investigation to be conducted into certain inflammatory posts published on social media threatening Members of Parliament.
The complaint by Speaker Mahinda Yapa Abeywardena came hours before Parliament was poised to accept the nominations for the post of president, which fell vacant last week after Gotabaya Rajapaksa fled the country and later resigned.
Police have warned that strict action would be taken against those who had created, published and circulated such threatening posts against lawmakers on social media. The economic crisis also sparked a political crisis in the country after a popular uprising against the government.
The island nation off the tip of southeast India needs about USD 5 billion in the next six months to cover basic necessities for its 22 million people, who have been struggling with long queues, worsening shortages and power cuts.