Ranil Wickremesinghe was on Wednesday elected as Sri Lanka's new President by Parliament, in a rare move that could provide continuity for ongoing discussions with the International Monetary Fund for a bailout for the cash-strapped nation but a development likely to anger anti-government protesters who have been demanding his resignation from office for weeks.
The 73-year-old Acting President and six-time former prime minister secured 134 votes in the 225-member House while his nearest rival and dissident ruling party leader Dullas Alahapperuma got 82.
Leftist Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna leader Anura Kumara Dissanayake secured just three votes during the voting held in Parliament amidst tight security.
In his address soon after his victory was announced by Speaker Mahinda Yapa Abeywardena, President Wickremesinghe, key ally of former President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, thanked the two contenders, Dullas Alahapperuma and Anura Kumara Dissanayake, and urged the MPs to work together in a new manner.
"The people are not asking us for old politics. I request Opposition leader Sajith Premadasa and other opposition parties including former Presidents Mahinda Rajapaksa and Maithripala Sirisena to work together," Wickremesinghe said.
"We were divided for the last 48 hours. That period is now over. We have to work together now," he said.
"Now that the election is over we have to end this division. From now on I am ready to have a dialogue with you," he said.
Wickremesinghe was sworn-in as acting president on July 13 after President Gotabaya Rajapaksa fled to the Maldives and then to Singapore from where he resigned in the face of public revolt against his government's mishandling of the country's economy.
Rajapaksa initially bolted to the Maldives and then Singapore after thousands of protesters stormed his presidential residences and other government buildings, calling for his resignation.
The anti-government protesters had also called for the resignation of Wickremesinghe, who was appointed prime minister in May. Protesters burnt down his private home and also stormed his prime ministerial office in Colombo in demonstrations against his leadership.
In his address, Wickremesinghe said the country was in a perilous state and the youth clamours for a change.
Wickremesinghe, who has been leading the crucial talks with the IMF, last week said that negotiations were nearing conclusion, and discussions for assistance with foreign countries was also progressing.
The new President will have a mandate to serve out the rest of Rajapaksa's term, which ends in November 2024.
Earlier, the voting by secret ballot took place amidst tight security in the wake of the simmering tensions in the island nation triggered by the unprecedented economic and political crisis.
In the crucial election, 223 lawmakers voted while two MPs abstained. Four votes were rejected while 219 were declared valid.
Wickremesinghe maintained a close edge as a number of MPs had pledged their support to him while his rival Alahapperuma had received crucial backing from the Opposition parties as well as a majority of lawmakers from his parent party -- Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP).
Wickremesinghe, who has been in Parliament for nearly five decades, was appointed as prime minister in May, nearly two years after his United National Party (UNP) was routed and failed to win a single seat in the general election held in August 2020.
Widely accepted in political circles as a man who could manage the economy with far-sighted policies, Wickremesinghe is struggling to fix the economy which, he said, had collapsed at the time of his appointment in May.
Wickremesinghe, who is believed to be close to India and its leaders, has held many important posts during his political career spanning four and half decades.
This is for the first time in 44 years that Sri Lanka's Parliament has directly elected a president. Presidential elections in 1982, 1988, 1994, 1999, 2005, 2010, 2015 and 2019 had elected them by popular vote.
The only previous occasion when the presidency became vacant mid-term was in 1993 when president Ranasinghe Premadasa was assassinated.
D B Wijetunga was unanimously endorsed by Parliament to run the balance of Premadasa's term.
The economic crisis also sparked a political crisis in the country after a popular uprising against the government.
Sri Lanka needs about $5 billion in the next six months to cover basic necessities for its 22 million people, who have been struggling with long queues, worsening shortages and power cuts.