Economy 9 minutes ago (Jul 20, 2022 05:01AM ET)
© Reuters. Protestors shout slogans during a protest demanding the resignation of Sri Lanka’s acting President Ranil Wickremesinghe, in Colombo, Sri Lanka July 19, 2022. REUTERS/Adnan Abidi
By Uditha Jayasinghe, Alasdair Pal and Devjyot Ghoshal
COLOMBO (Reuters) -Sri Lankan lawmakers voted in acting President Ranil Wickremesinghe as the new president on Wednesday, hoping his long experience in government would help pull the country out of a crippling economic and political crisis.
The mood of protesters was muted, with only around 100 people on the steps of the presidential secretariat. Many of the hundreds of thousands on the streets who forced the ouster of previous president Gotabaya Rajapaksa last week had wanted Wickremesinghe gone too, labelling him an ally of the Rajapaksa family.
“We’re shocked. He’s a person handling things in a very cunning way,” protester Damitha Abeyrathne said of Wickremesinghe. “He will start controlling us in a different way. As protesters, we will start our struggle again.”
Chameera Dedduwage, an organiser of previous protests, said one of the goals of the movement was the removal of Rajapaksa, and with that achieved, it “will have to be satisfied with its primary demand”.
“Unlike GR, Ranil is not a populist: he’s known to be a ruthless pragmatist,” Dedduwage said of Rajapaksa, using his initials.
The 225-member parliament gave 134 votes to Wickremesinghe and 82 to the other main candidate, ruling party lawmaker Dullas Alahapperuma. A third candidate, Anura Kumara Dissanayaka, got just three votes, according to the secretary general of parliament.
The win for Wickremesinghe, a six-time prime minister, came despite public anger with the ruling elite after months of severe shortages of fuel, food and medicines.
Wickremesinghe became acting president last week after Rajapaksa fled on a military plane to the Maldives and then took a commercial flight to Singapore.
“Our country is facing massive challenges and we have to work on a new strategy to fulfil the aspirations of the people,” the 73-year-old said after his victory. “Now, everyone must come together.”
Alahapperuma, although more acceptable to the protesters and the opposition, does not have any top-level governance experience in a country with barely any dollars for imports and desperately in need of an IMF bailout.
“I accept the decision of parliament,” he said. “My effort was to support consensus-based policy-making to provide solutions to a deeply suffering population. I believe the space for that still exists.”
‘PEOPLE DESERVE FUEL, TRANSPORTATION’
Ahead of the vote, Wickremesinghe said by the time he joined the Rajapaksa government as prime minister in May, the economy had already collapsed.
He said that since then, power cuts had been reduced to 3 hours a day from 5 hours and fertiliser had been provided to farmers who have suffered from an earlier ban on the commodity.
Wickremesinghe unsuccessfully ran for president twice before but secured enough votes among lawmakers this time despite controlling just one seat – as leader of the United National Party.
“This is now an outdated parliament with a mandate given for an ousted president,” said opposition leader Sajith Premadasa. But he added: “You can’t have an anarchical country. We must work according to the constitution. As the opposition, we will give our utmost support” for any plan to bring the economy back on track.
The tourism-dependent economy was hammered first by the COVID-19 pandemic and then a fall in remittances from overseas Sri Lankans. The ban on chemical fertilisers hit output before it was reversed late last year.
The Rajapaksas implemented populist tax cuts in 2019 that hurt government finances, while shrinking foreign reserves curtailed imports of fuel, food and medicines.
Petrol has been severely rationed. Headline inflation hit 54.6% last month and the central bank has warned that it could rise to 70% in coming months.
Ahead of the vote, Wickremesinghe imposed a state of emergency and local media said on Wednesday people would be barred from assembling near the main protest site.
But protesters vowed to carry on.
“People deserve fuel, transportation, we deserve anything citizens need,” said Kasumi Ranasinghe Arachchige, 26. “Until we see no one in Sri Lanka is struggling, the protest continues.”
Another protester, Buwanaka Perera, said: “The occupy movement shall continue, the struggle shall continue. We will continue the protest until Ranil goes home.”