By Sandun Jayawardana
When the United National Party (UNP) was all but wiped out at the 2020 parliamentary elections, many were quick to write off the party and its leader Ranil Wickremesinghe as a spent force in politics. It took almost a year of squabbles within the party for Mr Wickremesinghe to even be appointed to the UNP’s sole national list seat. He took oath as an MP on June 23 last year.
Just 13 months later, last Wednesday, he cemented one of the all-time great comebacks in politics when Parliament elected him as Sri Lanka’s 8th Executive President.
To say what happened was remarkable would be a gross understatement. A man who saw much of his party abandon him, and who presided over the UNP’s worst-ever electoral defeat, finally achieved his long cherished dream of becoming president. The overwhelming majority of those who voted for him were those who had been his staunchest political opponents until three months ago.
Wednesday’s vote was historic as it was the first time that Parliament held a secret ballot to elect a president. In 1993, Parliament unanimously elected Dingiri Banda Wijetunga as president following the assassination of Ranasinghe Premadasa.
With three candidates putting forward their names to replace Gotabaya Rajapaksa as president, however, a vote had to be taken in terms of the constitution.
Aside from Mr Wickremesinghe, who had been sworn in as Acting President following Mr Rajapaksa’s resignation on July 14, the other candidates in the fray were Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP) parliamentarian Dullas Alahapperuma and National People’s Power (NPP) Leader Anura Kumara Dissanayake. Opposition Leader Sajith Premadasa, who had earlier declared his intention to contest as the nominee from the Samagi Jana Balawegaya (SJB) backed out on Tuesday (19) morning, just before Parliament convened to accept nominations. Instead, Mr Premadasa formed an alliance with Mr Alahapperuma, proposing his name for the candidacy with SLPP Chairman G.L. Peiris seconding it. A clear split within the SLPP became apparent when Mr Wickremesinghe’s name was proposed by his Royal College classmate and House Leader Dinesh Gunawardena.
By Wednesday morning, various political parties and some individual MPs had already publicly stated who they would be supporting. The SJB and allied parties including the Sri Lanka Muslim Congress and All Ceylon Makkal Congress, the Tamil National Alliance (TNA) and the “Union of Independent Parties” jointly led by former Minister Wimal Weerawansa, Udaya Gammanpila and Vasudewa Nanayakkara publicly expressed support for Mr Alahapperuma. The Ceylon Workers’ Congress said its two MPs would support Mr Wickremesinghe, as did Thamil Makkal Thesiya Kuttani Leader C.V. Vigneswaran and National Congress Leader A.L.M. Athaullah.
The vote took place against the backdrop of the area surrounding Parliament being turned into a security fortress with a large presence of Police, Special Task Force, Army and Special Forces personnel. Armored cars had also been brought in while boats patrolled the Diyawanna Oya.
The winner was always going to be the one who managed to secure the most votes from the SLPP, given that the party had an overwhelming majority in Parliament. As such, Mr Wickremesinghe always had the edge, but it was felt that Mr Alahapperuma, who already had the backing of a section of the SLPP, may be able to lure enough MPs away to mount a serious challenge.
All 225MPs were present when the election was held. There was palpable tension in the air as Secretary General Dhammika Dasanayake, who functioned as the Returning Officer, read out the rules that MPs had to adhere to during the election.
A special feature in the parliamentary election of a President is that the Speaker too gets to vote and Speaker Mahinda Yapa Abeywardena’s name was the first to be called. Two SLPP MPs, Samanpriya Herath from Kurunegala and D. Weerasinghe from Digamadulla, were both infected with dengue and had been brought to Parliament from hospital via ambulance. They entered the chamber in wheelchairs with saline bottles in hand and were allowed to vote before their turn.
The two Ahila Ilankai Thamil Congress MPs — party leader Gajendrakumar Ponnambalam and MP Selvarajah Kajendran — opted to abstain.
With four votes deemed invalid, the winner was decided by a count of 219 valid votes cast.
Each candidate was entitled to have one member observing the counting of the votes. Harin Fernando acted as the observer for Mr Wickremesinghe and Dilan Perera for Mr Alahapperuma. Vijitha Herath was Mr Dissanayake’s observer.
The winner was apparent before the Secretary-General announced the final results, as Mr Fernando punched the air after the conclusion of the count and was seen shaking hands with some of those on the government benches. He then went all the way up to his fellow SJB defector Manusha Nanayakkara and gave him a hug. The two young MPs crossed over together and joined the Cabinet of then President Gotabaya Rajapaksa and Premier Ranil Wickremesinghe. By their own admission, they had been working hard in the days leading up to the vote to convince some of their SJB colleagues to cast their ballot for Mr Wickremesinghe.
In the end, it was a resounding victory. Ranil Wickremesinghe won the presidency by a margin of 52 votes, securing 134 of the votes. Mr Alahapperuma, who had been promised support by a wide array of parties, could only muster 82. Mr Dissanayake received three votes. The result was greeted by a loud thumping of desks by those in the government, with shouts of “Jaya Wewa” echoing around the chamber. However, the final count made clear that a significant number of those in the opposition, too, had voted for Mr Wickremesinghe.
Addressing Parliament after being declared the victor, Mr Wickremesinghe reminded Speaker Abeywardena that they began their political careers together in 1973. He said he was especially glad that Mr Abeywardena was in the Speaker’s chair when he was announced as President.
Mr Wickremesinghe noted that he had spent 45 years in Parliamentary politics. “This Parliament is my life and I’m thankful to Parliament for bestowing on me this great honour.”
He extended an appeal to all parties to come together to resolve the pressing issues faced by the people. “The people don’t want the usual brand of politics. This is why we must all work together to find solutions to our problems.”
Mr Alahapperuma said their aim was to build this country’s first practical consensus government. He wished the best for the new government under President-elect Wickremesinghe and said he hoped that it would at least now heed the voices of the hundreds of thousands of citizens who were suffering.
Given the number of political parties that openly pledged their support to Alahapperuma in the days prior to the vote, he would have easily won if all MPs in those parties had voted for him, NPP Leader Anura Kumara Dissanayake pointed out.
“We have a long history in this Parliament of MPs being sold to that side or other at decisive moments. I believe this is a similar situation. Others can disagree with me but that is my view,” he said to shouts of protest and jeers from the government benches.
In another first, President Wickremesinghe took oath as President on Thursday (21) in the Parliament complex before Chief Justice Jayantha Jayasuriya, in line with a request he made during his address to Parliament the previous day.