A three-way contest has emerged for Sri Lanka’s next president with two of the candidates linked to factions in former leader Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s party, suggesting the powerful clan will have some influence over the new government.
A lawmaker from Rajapaksa’s Sri Lanka Podujuna Peramuna Party nominated Acting President Ranil Wickremesinghe for the post in a special parliament session Tuesday. The proposal was then seconded by an opposition member of parliament in a sign of shifting alliances.
Wickremesinghe’s main competitor in the race is Dullas Alahapperuma from the SLPP and he was nominated by the leader of the opposition Sajith Premadasa. G.L. Peiris, who is the Foreign Minister and from the SLPP, seconded the nomination.
The next president needs to win 50% of votes cast, or 113 in parliament if all lawmakers submit their ballots on Wednesday morning. A third contender, left-leaning lawmaker Anura Kumara Dissanayake, joined the fray from the opposition Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna.
“The Rajapaksas are more aligned with Ranil as there is a sense he is more able to protect their interests,” said Bhavani Fonseka, a senior researcher at the Colombo-based Center for Policy Alternatives.
Fonseka said Dullas, on the other hand, is closer to Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s elder brother Mahinda Rajapaksa, who had stepped down in May as prime minister following violent protests. “Either way, whoever wins, the SLPP and the Rajapaksas will have some sway,” she added.
Gotabaya Rajapaksa fled to Singapore last week and resigned as president following monthslong protests over Sri Lanka’s worst economic crisis of its independent history.
It is now a numbers game for Wickremesinghe and Alahapperuma in parliament. Wickremesinghe only returned as a lawmaker after the 2020 parliamentary elections through a system where parties with enough votes can nominate a member under the “national list.” However, he appears to have the backing of the majority of the SLPP.
Alahapperuma seems to have the support of a small but growing faction within the SLPP along with an assortment of minor parties. Opposition leader Sajith Premadasa attempted to stack the numbers away from Wickremesinghe by withdrawing from the presidential race and giving his support to Alahapperuma with the understanding that he would be nominated as prime minister.
Dissanayake’s party only has three lawmakers in parliament.
Alahapperuma is an ally of Gotabaya’s older brother Mahinda Rajapaksa, who served as president for a decade from 2005-2015 and became premier in Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s government before being forced to resign in May. He entered politics when he won a provincial seat in 1993, eventually serving as a regional minister for cultural affairs.
He has been with Rajapaksa’s SLPP and was the party leader for his home base of Matara in southern Sri Lanka since 2016. In the run-up to the presidential race, he has called for a new government that includes all parties to put an end to “deceitful political culture.”
It remains crucial that any new president appeal to the protesters who have taken to the streets of the bankrupt nation for months. Wickremesinghe remains deeply unpopular with them. His whereabouts have been unknown since demonstrators set his private home on fire this month.
He’s also imposed a nationwide emergency, blaming “fascist” elements for escalating tensions in the country. It’s not clear if Alahapperuma will find favor either since he has links to the Rajapaksas as well.
International Monetary Fund Managing Director Kristalina Georgieva told Bloomberg News in an interview on Saturday that talks with Sri Lanka could proceed “quite quickly” as soon as a new government is in place, which could pave the way for a bailout.