Sri Lanka's ousted PM Wickremesinghe gears up for polls, plans legal action

Ranil Wickremesinghe. Photo: Twitter @RW_UNP
Sri Lanka’s ousted prime minister Ranil Wickremesinghe is ready for polls after President Maithripala Sirisena dissolved the island nation’s parliament and called for a snap general election.

“We are prepared to go for an election, but this is illegal,” said Harsha De Silva, who was state minister of economic affairs under Wickremesinghe’s government. “There will be a massive backing of citizens that believe in democracy and rule of law.”

The party of the deposed prime minister also said it would mount a legal challenge to the president’s move in Sri Lanka’s top court. The 225-seat parliament, which had already been suspended in the political chaos, was dissolved at midnight Friday with a vote scheduled for Jan. 5 and a new parliament set to reconvene on Jan. 17.

The dissolution is the latest twist in a constitutional crisis that began Oct. 26 when Sirisena unexpectedly fired Wickremesinghe, who served since 2015 as prime minister in a unity government with the president. Sirisena attempted to install Sri Lanka’s former strongman president Mahinda Rajapaksa as the new prime minister.

Unpopular Move

Although Rajapaksa enjoys widespread support for his role in bringing an end to Sri Lanka’s brutal 26-year civil war in 2009, some like Jehan Perera, executive director of the National Peace Council of Sri Lanka, said the controversial move to reinstate him has been unpopular.

“The premature dissolution, the perceived unfairness of sacking Wickremesinghe, this will generate sympathy for him,” Perera said in an interview. “Even among the general population, among thinking people, the feeling is that this is unfair and dangerous.”

The call for a fresh election came after it seemed unlikely Sirisena could prove a majority of lawmakers support his newly appointed prime minister. The move drew strong international condemnation for deepening a constitutional crisis and stalled about $2 billion worth of projects and grants.

“President Sirisena’s decision to dissolve parliament poses a vital threat to Sri Lanka’s democratic institutions,” the U.S. Embassy in Colombo said in a statement posted to Twitter on Saturday. “There is much at stake and such actions jeopardize Sri Lanka’s economic progress and international reputation.”

‘People’s Will’

Rajapaksa, who led Sri Lanka for a decade before he lost to Sirisena and Wickremesinghe in 2015, has defended the push for a new election as a way to bring stability to the country.

“A general election will truly establish the will of the people and make way for a stable country,” Rajapaksa said in a post on Twitter late on Friday.

The speaker of Sri Lanka’s parliament, Karu Jayasuriya, has warned the country could descend into political violence if the legislature remained suspended. Jayasuriya had said he can’t recognize Rajapaksa until he demonstrates a majority in the legislature, and lawmakers wanted a vote on Sirisena’s decision to fire Wickremesinghe.

Relations between Wickremesinghe and Sirisena became strained this year after their coalition was defeated in local elections by a Rajapaksa-backed party. Sirisena said he had to fire Wickremesinghe for mismanaging the economy and because of a cabinet minister’s alleged involvement in a plot to assassinate Sirisena.

While Wickremesinghe may get some sympathy from the recent developments, Rajapaksa, who comes from rural southern Sri Lanka, retains a strong degree of support among the Sinhala ethnic majority by espousing a fiercely proud Buddhist nationalism.

Many ordinary Sri Lankans support the plain-speaking Rajapaksa and his brand of politics, National Peace Council’s Perera said. “The voting masses go with, and have a greater affinity for, Rajapaksa’s type of politics and his persona,” he said.

The political uncertainty in Sri Lanka also has geopolitical implications for regional powers, with both China and India watching the events closely. Analysts see Rajapaksa likely favoring China for funding costly infrastructure projects. New Delhi will probably keep working in the background unless there is overt Chinese intervention, said Constantino Xavier, a foreign policy fellow at Brookings India.

The decision of Wickremesinghe to hold on to power despite Sirisena replacing him created “an embarrassing stalemate,” said Paul Staniland, an associate professor of political science at the University of Chicago. That made Sirisena “up the ante,” he said.

“The Supreme Court looks like it will be forced to enter the fray now, with incredibly high stakes and a huge amount of uncertainty about the outcome,” said Staniland. “This showdown is putting extraordinary stress on Sri Lanka’s political institutions in ways that will be very difficult to recover from.”

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