Perseverant Ranil Wickremesinghe yesterday reinforced his often underestimated prowess by becoming Sri Lanka’s 8th Executive President, comfortably winning a secret ballot from Parliamentarians with support mainly from colleagues loyal to ousted Rajapaksa regime.
Of the 225-member Parliament, 223 voted with 2 MPs (MPs Selvaraja Gajendran and G.G. Ponnambalam) abstaining and 4 ballots rejected as invalid.
Wickremesinghe received 134 votes against the 82 received by Dullas Alahapperuma. JVP Leader Anura Kumara Dissanayake managed only 3 votes.
Though political activists questioned the legitimacy, the victory fulfils a long-cherished dream of the 73-year-old veteran who marks 45 years in Parliament and has served a record six times as Prime Minister.
“My life has been in this Parliament,” said an enthusiastic Wickremesinghe in his brief address in the House after winning. Fittingly on his wishes, Wickremesinghe will be sworn in today at 10 a.m. in Parliament, a departure from his predecessors who opted for more grandiose or religiously important locations. He will serve the remainder of the term of the ousted President Gotabaya Rajapaksa till end 2024.
Wickremesinghe unsuccessfully contested for Presidency twice before in 1999 and 2005 and his party UNP suffered a humiliating defeat at the 2020 General Elections, forcing it to secure only a national seat.
It was ironic that President Rajapaksa who secured a record 6.9 million votes at November 2019 elections and his Sri Lanka Podujana Peruma won a near two-thirds majority at parliamentary elections had to turn to Wickremesinghe to become Prime Minister in May amidst political, economic and social chaos.
Prior to yesterday’s vote, a close contest was anticipated with campaigners of the two leading contenders expressing confidence of securing the majority. The eventual 134 votes and the margin did surprise most analysts as Opposition’s coalition candidate Alahapperuma got widespread pledges of support from other MPs. The final count prompted some of the Opposition MPs to allege that cash deals were the deciding factor rather than conscience.
The announcement of the outcome of the vote by Parliament Secretary General Dissanayake drew shouts of ‘Jayawewa’ amidst applause from Government benches. Dinesh Gunawardena who proposed Wickremesinghe and tipped to be the Prime Minister was seen thumping his desk.
In a brief speech in the House after the victory, Wickremesinghe recalled that he and the Speaker Mahinda Yapa Abeywardena entered politics in 1973 and “it was a special happy occasion to have been voted in as President with Abeywardena at the chair”.
Ranil stressed that he has spent 45 years in Parliament. “My life has been in this Parliament. Hence I like to extend a special gratitude to have been honoured with the Presidency by the very Parliament.”
Wickremesinghe recalled that 31 years ago or in 1993, the Parliament undertook a similar exercise after President Premadasa was assassinated to elect a new President. D.B. Wijetunga won uncontested. “15 of those including me who participated in the vote still serve Parliament as of today,” Wickremesinghe said.
It was pointed out in the second occasion yesterday, it was proved that the Parliament can elect a President via a vote. Therefore, Wickremesinghe said he has a responsibility to thank all those who ensured his victory.
Focusing on grimmer issues, he also said: “We all know we are in a serious economic crisis at present with youth demanding change. People are not asking for old politics but want all parties to get together and initiate a new program to move forward.”
“I request Dullas Alahapperuma and Anura Kumara Dissanayaka to work together for a new arrangement. I also request the Opposition leader and my friend Sajith Premadasa to join in,” Wickremesinghe said and also extended an invitation to former Presidents Mahinda Rajapaksa and Maithripala Sirisena and supportive Tamil MPs to come together with the Government.
“We were divided for 48 hours and after today we must get together. I am prepared to discuss from tomorrow with all parties,” Wickremesinghe emphasised.