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Sri Lanka begins voting to replace fugitive president

#Sri #Lanka #begins #voting #replace #fugitive #president

Sri Lanka’s Parliament began voting on Wednesday for a President to succeed Gotabaya Rajapaksa, who fled abroad after his palace was stormed by angry protesters who are now bracing for a crackdown from his likely successor.

One by one, lawmakers entered the voting booths set up on the floor of the Chamber to choose between three candidates who would lead the troubled country.

“Members are reminded that it is a criminal offense to photograph ballot papers or show them to others,” Parliamentary Secretary-General Dhammika Dasanayake told them. Previous elections have been overshadowed by allegations of corruption and vote-buying.

The winner takes responsibility for a bankrupt nation locked in bailout talks with the IMF, whose 22 million people suffer from severe food, fuel and medicine shortages.

Hundreds of heavily armed soldiers and police stood guard outside Parliament, but there were no signs of protesters.

Analysts say the front runner is Ranil Wickremesinghe, a six-time former prime minister who became acting president after his predecessor resigned but is despised by protesters, who see him as an ally of Rajapaksa.

Months of demonstrations over an unprecedented economic crisis culminated in Rajapaksa last week announcing his resignation from Singapore, days after troops rescued the leader from his besieged compound.

His departure hurts a once-powerful ruling clan that has largely dominated Sri Lankan politics for the past two decades after his brothers also resigned as prime minister and finance minister earlier this year.

Wickremesinghe, 73, has the support of the Rajapaksa SLPP, the largest bloc in the 225-seat parliament, in the elections.

As acting president, Wickremesinghe has extended the state of emergency that gives sweeping powers to police and security forces, and last week he ordered troops to clear protesters from state buildings they have occupied.

An opposition MP said Wickremesinghe’s no-holds-barred stance on protesters was well received by MPs who have been victims of mob violence and that most SLPP lawmakers sided with him.

“Ranil is emerging as a law and order candidate,” Tamil MP Dharmalingam Sithadthan told AFP ahead of the election.

Political scientist Kusal Perera agreed that Wickremesinghe has a “slight advantage” despite his own party winning just one seat in the August 2020 election.

“Ranil has regained the acceptance of the urban middle class by restoring some of the supplies like gas and he’s already cleared government buildings which shows his steadfastness,” Perera said.

The contest appeared to be close as lobbying intensified ahead of the vote. Two smaller parties pledged their support to Wickremesinghe’s main challenger, Dullas Alahapperuma, while a two-vote Tamil party said it was switching sides to support Wickremesinghe.

Observers believe Wickremesinghe will crack down if he wins and protesters take to the streets, also demanding his resignation and accusing him of protecting Rajapaksa interests.

Former President Mahinda Rajapaksa, older brother of deposed Gotabaya and head of the clan that has dominated Sri Lankan politics for years, remains in the country and party sources said he is urging SLPP MPs to support Wickremesinghe.

– ‘Actual Consensual Government’ –

His main opponent in the vote was SLPP dissident and former education minister Alahapperuma, a former journalist supported by the opposition.

Alahapperuma vowed this week to form “a truly consensual government for the first time in our history.”

If he wins, the 63-year-old is expected to appoint opposition leader Sajith Premadasa as his prime minister. Premadasa’s late father, Ranasinghe, ruled the country with an iron fist in the 1980s, when Alahapperuma was campaigning for rights.

The third candidate was Anura Dissanayake, 53, leader of the left-wing People’s Liberation Front (JVP), whose coalition has three seats in parliament.

Lawmakers rank candidates in order of preference, with more than half of the votes required for victory.

If no one crosses the first preference threshold, the candidate with the lowest support is eliminated and their votes are distributed according to second preference.

The new Chairman will serve for the remainder of Rajapaksa’s term, which runs until November 2024.

If confirmed in office, Wickremesinghe is expected to appoint Public Administration Minister Dinesh Gunawardena, 73, his schoolmate and staunch Rajapaksa supporter, as the new prime minister.

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