By KRISHAN FRANCIS
COLOMBO, Sri Lanka (AP) — The leader of Sri Lanka’s main opposition party withdrew his candidacy for president on Tuesday, throwing his support to another contender as lawmakers prepared to choose a successor to the ousted leader who fled the country last week.
Sajith Premadasa, leader of the main opposition party, said he would back former government minister and spokesman Dallas Alahapperuma, who was nominated Tuesday by a breakaway faction of the ruling coalition.
“For the greater good of my country that I love and the people I cherish I hereby withdraw my candidacy for the position of president,” Premadasa said in a Twitter post.
He continued, “and our alliance and our opposition partners will work hard towards making @DullasOfficial victorious,” it said.
Marxist party leader Anura Dissanayake was also expected to contest Wednesday’s parliamentary vote.
Former President Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s ruling coalition is now fragmented, with other members backing Acting President and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe, a choice expected to incense critics of the government outraged by the country’s dire economic crisis.
Rajapaksa fled the country after protesters outraged by the crisis stormed his official residence and occupied other key public buildings. He later submitted his resignation via an email to the speaker of the parliament.
Wickremesinghe’s anticipated entry angered those who saw his possible election as an extension of the Rajapaksa rule and a potential comeback for the beleaguered political family.
Separately on Tuesday the Supreme Court was set to decide whether Wickremesinghe’s appointment as acting president last week by the speaker of the parliament was legal. If it is pronounced illegal, Wickremesinghe may become ineligible to run for president.
Students and political activists said they planned protests Tuesday. Some intimidating posts circulating on social media warned lawmakers against returning to their constituencies if they vote for Wickremesinghe.
Parliament was heavily guarded by hundreds of soldiers, its entry points barricaded. Staff at parliament and reporters were thoroughly searched before they were allowed to enter.
Sri Lanka’s economy has collapsed, its foreign exchange reserves depleted, and it has suspended repayment of foreign loans. Its population is struggling with shortages of essentials like medicine, fuel and food.
The government is in talks with the International Monetary Fund for a bailout package and is preparing a loan restructuring plan as a prelude to that.
Rajapaksa’s exit last week marked at least a temporary dismantling of the Rajapaksa dynasty that had ruled Sri Lanka for most part of the past two decades.
Before the recent upheavals, six family members held high positions including president, prime minister and finance minister. All have lost their positions after public protests started in late March.
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