Sri Lanka's parliament meets on Wednesday to nominate a new speaker to replace Gotabaya Rajapaksa, who fled after his palace was stormed last week by angry mobs, with protesters expecting a tougher crackdown after the vote.
The winner of the ballot will inherit a country of 22 million people ravaged by a catastrophic economic crisis that is causing shortages of food, medicine, and fuel. The island, which defaulted in April on its foreign debt of 51 billion dollars, does not even have enough foreign currency to finance its essential imports, and hopes for a rescue plan from the International Monetary Fund (IMF).
Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe, who holds the interim presidency, is considered the favorite to win this vote by secret ballot among the 225 deputies and to lead Sri Lanka until the end of Mr. Rajapaksa's term. in November 2024.
Gotabaya Rajapaksa hastily fled his palace overrun by angry mobs on July 9 and took refuge in the Maldives, then Singapore, from where he resigned.
His fall is a setback for his family clan, which has dominated Sri Lanka's political life for two decades, after the resignation earlier this year of his brothers who were respectively prime minister and finance minister.
But Mr. Wickremesinghe has the support of the SLPP, the Rajapaksa party, which has the largest number of seats in Parliament. Former President Mahinda Rajapaksa, Gotabaya's older brother and head of the family clan, is still in the country and, according to party sources, is pressuring MPs to support Mr. Wickremesinghe.
Tuesday afternoon in the capital, thousands of students demonstrated their opposition to this 73-year-old cacique, who has been prime minister six times. They consider him an ally and protector of the Rajapaksa clan.
“We are not afraid of Ranil,” said Wasantha Mudalige, a student leader, “we will drive him out like we did Gotabaya.”
As interim president, Wickremesinghe extended the state of emergency, which gives police and security forces sweeping powers. Last week, he ordered the eviction of protesters from government buildings they occupied in central Colombo.
Tamil opposition MP Dharmalingam Sithadthan said Wickremesinghe's intransigence towards the protesters was welcomed by MPs, many of whom were victims of violence during the protests. "Ranil emerges as the candidate for law and order," Sithadthan told AFP.
According to political analyst Kusal Perera, Mr. Wickremesinghe has a "slight advantage", although his own party only has one seat in parliament. "Ranil has regained the acceptance of the urban middle classes by restoring certain services like gas, and he has already shown his firmness by evacuating government buildings," he said.
Observers expect Mr. Wickremesinghe, if he wins, to crack down hard on any protests. They also expect him to appoint his former classmate Dinesh Gunawardena, 73, a former civil service minister and staunch supporter of the Rajapaksa clan, as prime minister.
Mr. Wickremesinghe's main opponent in the vote will be SLPP dissident and former education minister Dullas Alahapperuma, a former opposition-backed journalist.
Mr. Alahapperuma pledged this week to form "a true consensus government for the first time in our history".
If he wins, the 63-year-old is expected to appoint opposition leader Sajith Premadasa prime minister. Mr. Premadasa's late father, Ranasinghe, ruled the country with an iron fist in the 1980s when Mr. Alahapperuma was a human rights activist.
The third candidate is Anura Dissanayake, 53, leader of the People's Liberation Front (JVP, left), which has three MPs.
Lawmakers will rank candidates in order of preference in a secret ballot, a mechanism that gives them greater leeway than an open ballot. Previous elections have been marred by allegations of bribes being offered and accepted in exchange for votes.