Sri Lanka speaker defies president as MP tells of defection cash offer
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Sri Lanka's speaker Friday summoned parliament to meet next week in defiance of the president as a constitutional crisis darkened with an MP saying he was offered millions of dollars and a minister's post to defect to a rival camp.
With the Indian Ocean nation torn between rival prime ministers Ranil Wickremesinghe and Mahinda Rajapakse, speaker Karu Jayasuriya said he could no longer ignore demands for parliament to meet to end the week-old feud.
Amid growing international concern over the standoff, Jayasuriya convened parliament to meet next Wednesday.
President Maithripala Sirisena suspended parliament until November 16 after sacking Wickremesinghe as premier and replacing him with former authoritarian president Rajapakse.
Wickremesinghe has refused to accept the dismissal and remained bunkered at the prime minister's official residence for the past week amid nearly daily twists in the saga.
Sirisena at first lifted the suspension, but with observers saying his candidate Rajapakse did not have enough support to win a parliamentary vote, the president's party said late Thursday that the assembly would remain shut.
"The speaker met a majority of MPs at a committee room today and promised he will open parliament on November 7," Jayasuriya's spokesman told AFP.
Some 118 of the 225 lawmakers attended the meeting in a new sign that Sirisena would not win a vote on Rajapakse, whose decade as president up to 2015 was marked by the brutal end of the Tamil civil war and corruption claims.
Wickremesinghe and his allies are confident they can prove a majority. But intense behind-the-scenes lobbying to tempt defectors surged into the open on Friday.
- Millions offered -
A senior member of Wickremesinghe's United National Party, Range Bandara, said he was offered $2.8 million and a ministry to switch sides and would go to the anti-graft commission.
"I have a phone recording of a former minister in the Rajapakse camp trying to approach me," Bandara told reporters. "A broker offered me the $2.8 million and the ministry of law and order."
Another Wickremesinghe loyalist, deputy minister Ranjan Ramanayake has already accused China of financing the defection of MPs to the Rajapakse-Sirisena camp. China has strongly rejected the claims.
The Sri Lanka Muslim Congress (SLMC) party, which has seven lawmakers, said its members had also rejected offers to join the Sirisena-Rajapakse camp.
"There are dealers and brokers trying to buy over MPs both wholesale and retail," SLMC leader Rauff Hakeem said. "This is a disgrace, an assault on the dignity of honourable members of parliament."
Hakeem said only an early parliament meeting could end the horse trading.
- Buying time -
Jayasuriya said that in a meeting with Sirisena this week he had highlighted that he had not been consulted on the suspension of parliament.
"I have been getting numerous appeals from diplomats and civil society groups to intervene and end this crisis," Jayasuriya said.
Wickremesinghe's party says that the president wants to shut parliament for as long as possible to give himself more time to secure votes for Rajapakse.
"It is clear that Rajapakse does not have the numbers in parliament to justify getting the prime minister post," UNP spokesman Harsha de Silva said. "They are now trying to wriggle out of this crisis."
De Silva said Rajapakse's brother, Gotabhaya Rajapakse, met with Wickremesinghe on Thursday to discuss ending the standoff but no accord was reached.
"The PM's position is clear. No compromise," de Silva said quoting Wickremesinghe.
There was no immediate reaction from Rajapakse or his party to the speaker's move to call parliament nor the allegations of offers to lawmakers.
In the meantime, Rajapakse's administration ordered cuts to prices of essential food and taxes in what was seen as a bid to woo public support.
The cuts were applied Friday, but MPs who met with the speaker in parliament vowed any decisions made by Rajapakse would not be honoured.
© 2018 AFP