Sri Lankan lawmakers prepare to vote on new president

The leader of Sri Lanka’s main opposition party withdrew his candidacy for president on Tuesday, throwing his support to another contender as lawmakers prepared to choose a successor to the ousted leader who fled the country last week.

Sajith Premadasa, leader of the main opposition party, said he would back former government minister and spokesman Dullas Alahapperuma, who was nominated Tuesday by a breakaway faction of the ruling coalition.

“For the greater good of my country that I love and the people I cherish I hereby withdraw my candidacy for the position of president,” Premadasa said in a Twitter post.

He continued, “and our alliance and our opposition partners will work hard towards making @DullasOfficial victorious,” it said.

Marxist party leader Anura Dissanayake, 53, was also expected to contest Wednesday’s parliamentary vote. He ran for president in 2019 and lost.

Former President Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s ruling coalition is now fragmented, with other members backing Acting President and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe, a choice expected to incense critics of the government outraged by the country’s dire economic crisis.

Rajapaksa fled the country after protesters outraged by the crisis stormed his official residence and occupied other key public buildings. He later submitted his resignation via an email to the speaker of the parliament.

Wickremesinghe’s anticipated entry angered those who saw his possible election as an extension of the Rajapaksa rule and a potential comeback for the beleaguered political family.

The Supreme Court on Tuesday dismissed a petition against Wickremesinghe’s status as a lawmaker. Had the court upheld the petition, Wickremesinghe would have not been eligible to run for president.

Alahapperuma, 63, is a former government spokesman and has served in various posts including minister of information and mass media, minister of sports and minister of power under previous governments. A son of school administrators, he studied political science at the University of Iowa but did not earn a degree.

A Buddhist, he is married to a popular singer, Pradeepa Dharmadasa.

Students and political activists said they planned protests Tuesday. Some intimidating posts circulating on social media warned lawmakers against returning to their constituencies if they vote for Wickremesinghe.

After the protesters briefly took over public buildings last week in startlingly dramatic scenes, Parliament was heavily guarded by hundreds of soldiers, its entry points barricaded. Staff at parliament and reporters were thoroughly searched before they were allowed to enter. Navy boats patrolled in the lake surrounding Parliament.

Sri Lanka’s economy has collapsed, its foreign exchange reserves depleted, and it has suspended repayment of foreign loans. Its population is struggling with shortages of essentials like medicine, fuel and food.

The government is in talks with the International Monetary Fund for a bailout package and is preparing a loan restructuring plan as a prelude to that.

Rajapaksa’s exit last week marked at least a temporary dismantling of the Rajapaksa dynasty that had ruled Sri Lanka for most part of the past two decades.

Before the recent upheavals, six family members held high positions including president, prime minister and finance minister. All have lost their positions after public protests started in late March.

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