Sri Lanka’s political crisis is looks likely to continue this week after the ruling party decided to nominate the prime minister, Ranil Wickremesinghe, as its candidate to be the next president.
After the dramatic toppling of Sri Lanka’s strongman president Gotabaya Rajapaksa, the campaign has begun for who will take up executive power at a time when the country is facing some of the worst economic and political upheaval since independence.
The fall of Rajapaksa, which followed months of sustained protests and historic scenes, during which crowds took over his presidential palace and offices, was greeted with jubilation by many in Sri Lanka.
Yet for many in the protest movement that has emerged, removing Rajapaksa from power was just the first step to revolutionising politics in Sri Lanka. And, after the resignation was announced, another obstacle to enacting change seemed to immediately pop up.
On Friday, prime minister Ranil Wickremesinghe was appointed interim president until parliament meets next week to vote on who will take up the role officially. It was a role he had occupied since Wednesday when, before fleeing to the Maldives in the dead of night, Rajapaksa had appointed Wickremesinghe “acting president”.
The announcement was greeted with anger and frustration on the streets of Colombo. Wickremesinghe, who has already been prime minister five times, stands accused of protecting and propping up the Rajapaksa family dynasty for years, shielding them from corruption charges and enabling their return to power.
His decision to agree to become a caretaker prime minister two months ago was seen by many as the reason Rajapaksa stayed in power for weeks longer than he would have otherwise.
The public frustration at Wickremesinghe has manifested multiple times, from his private residence being burned down to his offices being stormed by protesters on Wednesday.
But despite the clear message from protesters that he is not the leader they have been calling for, on Friday Wickremesinghe announced he would be among those putting his name forward as a nominee for president.
He will be the candidate for the Rajapaksas’ ruling party, the Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP), which still has the largest number of seats in parliament. He stands a high chance of being elected after the vote by MPs in parliament next Tuesday or Wednesday.
There was a mood of frustration among those who worked for months to bring down the Rajapaksa presidency.
“Ranil Wickremesinghe should step down because he came in defence of this corrupt system and he has failed five times before as prime minister,” said Catholic priest Jeevantha Peiris, who has been a protest leader. “As citizens, we don’t accept him, we don’t need another corrupt leader. We want to change the whole system.”
Many who have been living in the anti-government protest camp in the central Colombo area of Galle Face expressed concern, and by Friday it had been renamed from Gota Go Gama (Gota go home) to Ranil Go Gama (Ranil Go Home).
There was a particular worry over the language that Wickremesinghe has used to describe protesters in recent days, describing them as being infiltrated by “fascists” and “extremists”.
“The idea of Ranil being the replacement for Gota, with all the power that holds, is not the change we’ve been asking for and is a very scary concept going forward,” said Mithsandi Seveviratne, 21. “We are worried that how he cracks down on this movement might even be a lot worse than what Gota has done.”
Many pointed out that Wickremesinghe had only entered parliament through a list system for his party which had just one seat and accused him of lacking any political legitimacy and ignoring the demands of the people’s movement, known as Aragalya, which Wickremesinghe has claimed to support.
“The youth came forward to kick Gota out, which everyone thought was an impossible task, but we did not do this, struggle for all these months, so it could be Ranil for president,” said Maneth, 25. “He is not a change: since we were kids he has either been prime minister or leader of the opposition so we have no faith in Ranil.”
Wickremesinghe’s nomination even appeared to cause divisions with the SLPP. The party chair, GL Peiris, sent a letter to the party’s general secretary expressing “amazement and total disbelief” at the statement that it would be backing Wickremesinghe as its presidential nominee.
However, Wickremesinghe will be up against several candidates in the presidential secret ballot next week, including the leader of the opposition, Sajith Premadasa –who has vowed to make sure “an elective dictatorship never, ever occurs” and go after the leaders who “looted the country” – and another SLPP politician, Dullas Alahapperuma, which could split the vote of the ruling party. Former army chief Sarath Fonseka has also signalled his intention to run.
As parliament reconvened briefly on Saturday, a note from Rajapaksa was read out – the first words heard publicly from him since he fled to the Maldives and on to Singapore, where he remains.
“I have contributed my utmost for the country,” read Rajapaksa’s letter. “In the future too, I will contribute for the country.”