Sri Lanka president's climbdown offers hope of end to political crisis

Ishara S. Kodikara, AFP | Supporters of ousted Sri Lanka's Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe shout slogans during a protest against his removal near the Prime Minister's official residence in Colombo on October 30, 2018.

Sri Lanka's President lifted a suspension of parliament Thursday and called a meeting of lawmakers next week that could end an increasingly bitter power struggle between two rival prime ministers, officials said.


The climbdown by Maithripala Sirisena, who sparked the crisis by sacking Ranil Wickremesinghe as prime minister and naming former strongman leader Mahinda Rajapakse in his place, could lead to a vote showing which of the two has majority backing among deputies.

"The people's voices have been heard," Wickremesinghe said in a Twitter statement announcing Monday's meeting. "Democracy will prevail."

Sirisena suspended parliament until November 16 shortly after the sacking last Friday, deepening a crisis which led the parliament speaker to warn of a "bloodbath" unless a vote is held.

One activist has already been killed in fallout from the tensions.

Speaker Karu Jayasuriya announced that he will meet with leaders of political parties on Friday to discuss the next steps in the efforts to end the crisis. It remained unclear when a vote would be held.

"I had a long discussion with the president last night and I received positive responses from him," Jayasuriya said, adding that he would give details to other party leaders on Friday.

An official involved in the process told AFP that Jayasuriya had secured a "compromise" from the president. "Otherwise, the speaker was going to defy the president and summon parliament on Friday."

The crisis has put the whole country on edge and threatens to polarise voters.

Sirisena insists his actions were legal but Jayasuriya, who holds the third most powerful state post, refused to defend his manoeuvrings.

Attorney General Jayantha Jayasuriya also cast doubt on the legality of Sirisena's moves, increasing pressure on the president.

Foreign pressure

Colombo-based Western diplomats have made it clear that they were unwilling to recognise the new administration, diplomatic sources said.

The United States, neighbouring India as well Sri Lanka's key financial backer China have called on the rivals to peacefully resolve the crisis.

Wickremesinghe has remained bunkered in the prime minister's official residence in Colombo with hundreds of his followers camped outside.

He has repeatedly demanded that the legislature be recalled for him to prove his majority in the 225-member assembly.

Rajapakse, whose decade as president up to 2015 became known for corruption allegations and the brutal ending of the Tamil civil war, is working out of a separate building that is officially the prime minister's offices.

The 72-year-old has named a small ministerial team of 12 and addressed bureaucrats at the finance ministry on Wednesday. He has promised to expand his cabinet to 30 members.

The two rivals are also jockeying for power behind the scenes, battling to tempt lawmakers from opposing sides to bolster their numbers for when a vote is held.

Both sides have asked legislators on foreign visits to return home immediately.

Rajapakse has given five legislators from Wickremesinghe's party ministerial positions in his cabinet after they defected.

Wickremesinghe has convinced at least two lawmakers from Sirisena's camp to join his United National Party.

According to the latest counts, Wickremesinghe has 104 MPs while Rajapakse and Sirisena together have 99. A majority of the 22 remaining MPs are expected to back Wickremesinghe, observers said.

Even if this crisis is patched up, observers are worried about how the country will go into a presidential election scheduled for next year and legislative polls in 2020.

"The struggle for power jeopardises progress on reforms, ethnic reconciliation, and prospects for peaceful and fair elections in 2019," said the International Crisis Group think tank.

It has called on the United States, European Union and other key nations to put more pressure on Sirisena to end the battle.

"They should back these calls by making clear that Rajapakse's appointment, if it stands, threatens the future of security and economic cooperation."


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