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Three-way fight to lead bankrupt Sri Lanka

Three candidates were nominated Tuesday to replace former Sri Lankan president Gotabaya Rajapaksa, who fled the country and resigned last week after protesters overran his residence.

People gather in front of the department of Immigration and Emigration to apply for a passport in Colombo on 18 July 2022. (Photo by Arun SANKAR / AFP)

Three candidates were nominated Tuesday to replace former Sri Lankan president Gotabaya Rajapaksa, who fled the country and resigned last week after protesters overran his residence.

The winner will take charge of a bankrupt nation that is in talks with the IMF for a bailout, with its 22 million people enduring severe shortages of food, fuel and medicines.

Sri Lanka ran out of foreign exchange to finance even the most vital imports in a crisis triggered by the coronavirus pandemic but exacerbated by mismanagement, critics say.

Months of protests culminated in Rajapaksa fleeing his palace before flying to the Maldives and then Singapore, from where he submitted his resignation.

The parliament announced Tuesday that acting President Ranil Wickremesinghe would face former education minister Dullas Alahapperuma — who has the backing of the main opposition — and leftist leader Anura Dissanayake in a secret ballot on Wednesday.

The three were formally nominated by legislators in a session that lasted less than 10 minutes at the tightly guarded parliament building.

Moments earlier, opposition SJB party leader Sajith Premadasa had announced on Twitter that he was withdrawing from the race in favour of the 63-year-old Alahapperuma, a dissident member of Rajapaksa’s divided SLPP party.

“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.

He went onto nominate Alahapperuma, a former journalist and rights campaigner in the late 1980s, when Premadasa’s late father Ranasinghe ruled the country with an iron fist.

An SJB legislator told AFP that the two men struck a deal overnight for Premadasa to be chosen as the new prime minister should Alahapperuma be elected president on Wednesday.

“We have a common minimum program that we agreed on,” the SJB MP said. “We had only one sticking point about who will be the president and that was sorted out last night.”

But Wickremesinghe, 73, a veteran political operator and six-time prime minister, has the formal backing of the leadership of the SLPP, which remains the largest party in the 225-member parliament.

If Wickremesinghe is confirmed in the post, he is expected to name public administration minister Dinesh Gunawardena, a school friend of his and strong Rajapaksa loyalist, as the new premier.

The third candidate is Anura Dissanayake, 53, leader of the leftist JVP, or People’s Liberation Front, which has three parliamentary seats.

A possible fourth candidate, former army chief Sarath Fonseka, failed to get support from legislators to enter the presidential race.

The new leader will be in office for the balance of Rajapaksa’s term, which runs until November 2024.

On Monday, Wickremesinghe extended a state of emergency giving sweeping powers to police and security forces to deal with troublemakers.

The protesters whose massive public show of force dislodged Rajapaksa were planning another rally in the capital later Tuesday to also demand the resignation of Wickremesinghe.

They see him as an ally and protector of the Rajapaksa clan, which has dominated politics in the Indian Ocean country for several years.

Former president Mahinda Rajapaksa, the deposed Gotabaya’s elder brother and the head of the group, remains in Sri Lanka and party sources said he was pressing SLPP legislators to support Wickremesinghe.

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