Sri Lanka heads for showdown as Rajapakse rallies support

Published November 6, 2018
Sri Lankan police officer tries to control supporters of Sri Lanka's former president and newly appointed prime minister Mahinda Rajapakse and President Maithripala Sirisena at a rally in Colombo on November 5. — AFP
Sri Lankan police officer tries to control supporters of Sri Lanka's former president and newly appointed prime minister Mahinda Rajapakse and President Maithripala Sirisena at a rally in Colombo on November 5. — AFP

COLOMBO: Former Sri Lankan president Mahinda Rajapakse rallied tens of thousands of supporters in a show of strength on Monday even as the parliament’s speaker refused to recognise his controversial appointment as prime minister.

Busloads of men and women from around the country descended on the capital as Rajapakse thanked President Maithriapala Sirisena for sacking Ranil Wickremesinghe and appointing him in his place.

The move on Oct 26 triggered an unprecedented constitutional crisis, plunging the island into political turmoil.

“We have united to work for the people,” Rajapakse said, referring to their previous rivalry when Sirisena defeated him for the presidency in 2015.

Sirisena was supported by Wickremesinghe three years ago but the two men have gradually drifted apart, leading to Wickremesinghe’s shock sacking last month.

Sirisena has suspended parliament, allowing Rajapakse time to tempt defectors from other parties and prove his majority.

But parliament’s speaker Karu Jayasuriya warned on Monday the president’s actions were illegal and he would not recognise Rajapakse as prime minister.

“Until the new faction [of Rajapakse] is able to prove a majority in parliament, I will recognise the situation that prevailed prior to Oct 26,” Jayasuriya said in his strongest statement yet on the crisis.

Former strongman Rajapakse remains a popular but polarising figure in Sri Lanka. In 2009 his iron-fisted rule ended a long and bloody civil war that claimed 100,000 lives.

His decade in power was also marred by serious allegations of rights abuses, corruption, forced disappearances and the persecution of the island’s sizeable Tamil minority.

During Monday’s rally Rajapakse urged smaller parties, which have emerged as kingmakers, to support him over Wickremesinghe.

Minority Tamils and a small leftist group have indicated that they will oppose Rajapakse, however.

Sirisena’s suspension has prevented Wickremesinghe from proving his majority on the floor of the house.

“I have to agree with the majority of parliament who believe that the president’s actions are undemocratic, unconstitutional and against all norms of parliamentary procedure,” Jayasuriya, who holds a neutral position in parliament, said Monday.

Rajapakse has also already assumed duties as finance minister, announcing last week a slew of tax concessions and price cuts in a move seen as a sop to voters.

But powerful forces oppose his appointment, suggesting his grip on power could be tenuous and the rift between the rivals could widen.

Most Colombo-based diplomats have studiously avoided meeting Rajapakse until the leadership battle is resolved.

Published in Dawn, November 6th, 2018

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