COLOMBO: Sri Lanka’s opposition leader, Sajith Premadasa, on Tuesday withdrew from a crucial presidential election and threw his support behind a rival candidate in a move that presents a significant challenge to Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe’s bid for the top office.
MPs are preparing to choose a successor to Gotabaya Rajapaksa, the ousted president who fled the country last week to escape a popular uprising over the role his family — Sri Lanka’s most influential political dynasty — played in the country’s worst-ever economic meltdown.
When Rajapaksa left, he made his ally Wickremesinghe acting president, a decision that triggered more protests.
Parliament on Wednesday is set to choose a new full-time president who will complete Rajapaksa’s term, which expires in 2024.
Premadasa, the son of Ranasinghe Premadasa, who served as the country’s president from 1989 to 1993, was nominated for the presidency by the main opposition alliance, Samagi Jana Balawegaya. He contested the presidential election in 2019, but lost to Rajapaksa.
“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 on Twitter, as he announced the SJB’s support for Dullas Alahapperuma, a former information minister and MP from the ruling Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna party.
The SLPP last week announced its support for Wickremesinghe in the upcoming parliamentary election, but a breakaway faction has since nominated Alahapperuma for the role.
The third candidate contesting the parliamentary vote will be MP Anura Dissanayake, leader of the Marxist party Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna, who also took part in the 2019 presidential race.
Premadasa’s withdrawal means his SJB support will significantly improve Alahapperuma’s chances of beating Wickremesinghe.
“It’s a fortunate breakthrough in the annals of Sri Lanka that one of the contestants, Sajith Premadasa, gracefully withdrew from the fray and even proposed his dissident candidate Dullas Alahapperuma to be the nominee for the presidential elections scheduled for Wednesday,” Dayan Jayatillake, Sri Lanka’s former envoy to the UN in Geneva, told Arab News.
“The general public has rejected Ranil Wickremesinghe, who does not have the people’s mandate to hold a responsible position in the government machinery.”
Protests flared in Colombo in March, and have spread across the country as people struggle with daily power cuts and shortages of basic commodities, such as fuel, food and medicines.
The country’s foreign currency reserves have run out, leaving Sri Lanka unable to pay for imports.
Wickremesinghe was appointed prime minister in May after Rajapaksa’s elder brother, Mahinda Rajapaksa, was forced to resign when anti-government demonstrations turned deadly. He also took on the role of finance minister, becoming the public face of the country’s economic woes.
Opponents of Wickremesinghe’s candidacy fear he represents an extension of the Rajapaksa rule and a potential comeback for the political dynasty, of which six family members until recent months held high positions, including president, prime minister and finance minister.
Protests demanding Wickremesinghe’s resignation have continued in Colombo since last week’s ouster of the former president.
“We don’t want Ranil (Wickremesinghe) to be the president,” Namal Jayaweera, leader of the protest movement, told Arab News. “He is one of the dealers of the Rajapaksa family.”