The Secretary General of Parliament, Dhammika Dasanayake, in the morning rang the quorum bell to signal the start of the secret ballot of his 225 deputies.

One by one, the deputies entered the voting booths to choose which of the three candidates will be called upon to lead the country.

With previous elections marred by accusations of bribery and vote-buying, Mr Dasanayake reminded MPs that ‘photographing ballot papers or showing them to other people’ was ‘an offence’ and that the use of cell phones was prohibited.

MPs must rank candidates in order of preference, a secret process that gives them greater leeway than an open ballot.

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).

– Quiet in the streets –

Outside Parliament, hundreds of heavily armed soldiers and police remained on guard against possible protests, but the situation remained calm.

Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe, who holds the interim presidency, is seen by analysts as the favorite to win that vote and lead Sri Lanka until the end of Mr Rajapaksa’s term in November 2024.

But he is hated by the demonstrators, who consider him an ally and protector of Gotabya Rajapaksa. The latter, who fled the angry mob on July 9, took refuge in the Maldives and then in Singapore, from where he resigned.

Mr. Wickremesinghe has the support of the SLPP, the party of the Rajapaksa, the first party in parliament in number of seats.

Former President Mahinda Rajapaksa, Gotabaya’s older brother and head of the family clan, is still in the country and according to party sources was pressuring MPs to support Mr Wickremesinghe’s candidacy.

Tuesday afternoon in the capital, hundreds of students demonstrated their opposition to this 73-year-old cacique, who has been prime minister six times.

“We are not afraid of Ranil,” said Wasantha Mudalige, a student leader, and “we will hunt him down like we did Gotabaya.”

As interim president, Wickremesinghe on Monday extended a 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.

– “Candidate of the order” –

Tamil opposition MP Dharmalingam Sithadthan said Wickremesinghe’s intransigence towards the protesters was welcomed by MPs, many of whom faced violence during the protests.

“Ranil emerges as the candidate for law and order,” Sithadthan told AFP.

According to political analyst Kusal Perera, “Ranil has regained the acceptance of the urban middle classes by restoring certain services such as gas, and he has already shown his firmness by evacuating government buildings”.

Observers expect Mr Wickremesinghe, if he wins, to crack down hard on any protests. And that he appoints Prime Minister his former classmate Dinesh Gunawardena, 73, a former Minister of Public Service and fervent supporter of the Rajapaksa clan.

Mr Wickremesinghe’s main opponent is 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 only three MPs.