World Sri Lanka lawmakers elect unpopular Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe...

Sri Lanka lawmakers elect unpopular Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe as new president

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Protesters burn new President Ranil Wickremesinghe in effigy during a protest in front of the president’s secretariat in Colombo, Sri Lanka, on Wednesday. Photo by Chamila Karunarathne/EPA-EFE

July 20 (BP) — Sri Lanka Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe, a largely unpopular figure whose house was set on fire during recent protests fueled by the country’s ongoing economic crisis, was elected president on Wednesday by Sri Lankan lawmakers — a move that may lead to yet more unrest.

The 73-year-old Wickremesinghe — a seasoned and savvy politician after more than four decades in office — now takes over handling of the crisis, formally succeeding ousted President Gotabaya Rajapaksa who fled the country for Singapore earlier this month when protests became more violent.

During the protests, demonstrators occupied Rajapaksa’s and Wickremesinghe’s offices and their private residences. Wickremesinghe’s home was set on fire.

In his victory speech, Wickremesinghe called for unity amid the food and fuel shortages that continue to plague Sri Lanka.

“I need not tell you the status our country is in. Now that the election is over we have to end this division. We had 48 hours to stay divided but from now on I am ready to have a dialog with you,” he said according to The Guardian.

During his campaign, Wickremesinghe vowed to resurrect the country’s economy, in part by seeking a bailout from the International Monetary Fund — a move that Rajapaksa refused to do after the economic crisis began three years ago, which only compounded Sri Lanka’s problems.

Demonstrators carry a Sri Lankan flag during an anti-government protest near the office building of the prime minister in Colombo, Sri Lanka, on July 13. Wickremesinghe, who is unpopular with the public, was elected Wednesday as president. Photo by Kumara De Mel/ BP

But Wickremesinghe’s standing with Sri Lankans is on shaky ground — mostly because he was a longtime ally to Rajapaksa and the former president’s relatives serve in the parliamentary chamber that elected Wickremesinghe on Wednesday.

During the recent protests, some Sri Lankans were opposed to Wickremesinghe serving as interim president and indicated that they did not want to see him get the job permanently.

“He has no people’s mandate [and] is a well known Rajapaksa supporter,” one protester said during a demonstration last week. “I mean, the new president and the new prime minister should be not a Rajapaksa supporter.”

Wickremesinghe will serve at least through 2024, which is the remainder of Rajapaksa’s term. Rajapaksa was Sri Lanka’s first president to be ousted midterm by mass protests.

Protests calling for Wickremesinghe’s resignation continued on Wednesday, including one that was held in silence at the presidential secretariat in the capital Colombo.

Less than an hour into Wickremesinghe’s presidency, mass gatherings were declared illegal in Galle Face in Colombo, which has been a staging ground for anti-government protests.

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