Confusion gripped the island nation of Sri Lanka over the weekend, as President Maithripala Sirisena sacked his prime minister and appointed controversial former president Mahinda Rajapaksa in his place.

With tensions already heightened by the killing of one activist, the United States added to international pressure on President Maithripala Sirisena to annul his suspension of parliament to end the power struggle. October 28, 2018.
With tensions already heightened by the killing of one activist, the United States added to international pressure on President Maithripala Sirisena to annul his suspension of parliament to end the power struggle. October 28, 2018. (Reuters)

President Maithripala Sirisena sacked Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe on Friday, breaking up a fragile coalition governing the island. 

He then installed a former president and controversial leader of the opposition Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) Mahinda Rajapaksa as the country's new prime minister. 

The surprise move followed disagreements between Sirisena and Wickremesinghe over economic policy and day-to-day administration of the government and left the country with a suspended parliament and two men vying for the premier spot. 

One, the incumbent Wickremesinghe, a veteran politician who has been high in the (United National Party) UNP government’s ranks for decades. 

The other, Rajapaksa – a former strongman who governed the country between 2005-2015 and gained popularity for ending a deadly 26-year-old civil war in the country with ethnic Tamil separatists (LTTE) in 2009. 

Undeterred, Wickremesinghe refused to vacate the prime minister’s residence, demanding that he be allowed to prove his majority instead. This proved a little difficult when Sirisena suspended parliament where Wickremesinghe's party commands the most seats, until November 16.

Wickremesinghe says his sacking was illegal and maintains that he is still prime minister, leading to a standoff between his party and labour unions loyal to Sirisena and Rajapaksa.

Violence erupted on Sunday when a man was killed and two others injured after bodyguards for a Sri Lankan cabinet minister Arjuna Ranatunga belonging to the UNP opened fire inside a government ministry.

Is the move constitutional?

A 2015 amendment to the constitution diluted the powers of the president, making Sirisena's action unconstitutional.

“The Prime Minister can only be removed from office, by resignation, by him/her ceasing to be a member of parliament or if confidence has been withdrawn from the parliament, by the government as a whole,” law professor at the University of Edinburgh, Dr Asanga Welikala told TRT World.

The constitution also says that the president has the power to appoint a prime minister who he deems the most likely to command the confidence of the parliament. 

According to Welikala, it is this clause that seems to be the loophole that Sirisena wants to take advantage of when he sacked Wickremesinghe. 

“The President seems to have taken these words rather too literally than is constitutionally permissible,” Welikala wrote for news outlet Groundviews.

Ranil Wickremesinghe said his sacking was illegal and he maintained that he was still prime minister, leading to a standoff between his party and labour unions loyal to Sirisena. October 29, 2018.
Ranil Wickremesinghe said his sacking was illegal and he maintained that he was still prime minister, leading to a standoff between his party and labour unions loyal to Sirisena. October 29, 2018. (Reuters)

What next? 

“Until one of these persons – Mahinda Rajapaksa or Ranil Wickremesinghe – can demonstrate that he has the confidence of Parliament through the support of a majority of MPs, and force the President to accept the will of Parliament, the crisis will not be resolved,” wrote Welikala for Groundviews

Under the current situation, Wickremesinghe seems to be secure in his position as the country’s premier, telling reporters outside his residence on Sunday, “I am still the prime minister who commands that majority."

He insists that parliament must be allowed to convene immediately to decide who has the majority and that the legislature had judicial powers to resolve the crisis and said his dismissal was illegal.

Breaking this political stalemate may pivot to Parliament speaker Karu Jayasuriya, who also belongs to the UNP and has refused to endorse Sirisena's dismissal of Wickremesinghe. 

The speaker, under a ruling made in 2003, has the power to reconvene parliament after it has been prorogated. Parliament's "exercise of the power to summon, dissolve and prorogue must therefore always be exercised in consultation with Parliament."

“If and when that happens tomorrow or on Wednesday we have an opportunity to see who the member of parliament is who has the majority in parliament and therefore can continue as prime minister or change prime minister,” Welikala told TRT World

But Jayasuriya has not ruled other options out. 

"We should settle this through parliament, but if we take it out to the streets, there will be a huge bloodbath," said Jayasuriya, who is a member of Wickremesinghe's party but whose post is officially neutral.

In a statement released late on Sunday, Rajapaksa pledged to “eschew the politics of hate and set up an interim government that will protect the human rights of all citizens, that will protect the independence of the judiciary and establish law and order.”

The former president also called on lawmakers to support his new government.

Sri Lanka's former President Mahinda Rajapaksa (Front-L) is sworn in as the new prime minister before President Maithripala Sirisena in Colombo, Sri Lanka on October 26, 2018.
Sri Lanka's former President Mahinda Rajapaksa (Front-L) is sworn in as the new prime minister before President Maithripala Sirisena in Colombo, Sri Lanka on October 26, 2018. (Reuters)

The standoff also has important geopolitical implications. 

The country has long been influenced by its neighbour India. The Indian government had supported and trained the LTTE during the first half of Sri Lanka's civil war.

Later, Colombo also became massively indebted to China to finance huge infrastructure projects during Rajapaksa’s decade as president.

How do Sri Lankans feel? 

The mood in Sri Lanka is now different from January 2015 when Sirisena was elected into power. 

The atmosphere in the country was cautiously hopeful, built on promises that Sirisena had made to tamp down on corruption, resolve ethnic tensions and stem the flow of debt that Rajapaksa’s administration had built during its tenure in power. 

Now, the Sri Lankan economy is struggling with slow growth and a weakening currency as d-day for debt looms. 

This all, with the refinancing of government debt on the horizon – if tensions continue, Sri Lanka could struggle to refinance it when it is due in early 2019 at an affordable rate, credit rating agency Moody's said.

Others are terrified. For some, memories of his ruthlessness with dissenters during the civil war era, the lavish lifestyles of his three sons and nepotism that saw his brothers holding sway in many key institutions gradually eroded Rajapaksa's popularity, resulting in his defeat in his bid for a third term in 2015.

Both Rajapaksa and the LTTE are accused of committing war crimes, especially towards the end of the country's 26-year-old conflict. The former president denies the allegations against him.

Others see the move as undemocratic, calling it a constitutional coup. 

As this crisis works its knots out, there are reports of Rajapaksa supporters taking over state-run media institutions, intimidating editorial staff and also disrupting legitimate work of government ministries.

Source: TRTWorld and agencies