In Sri Lanka’s Leadership Standoff, Both Sides Fight for Their Political Lives

In Sri Lanka’s Leadership Standoff, Both Sides Fight for Their Political Lives
Sri Lankans protest outside sacked prime minister Ranil Wickeremesighe’s official residence in Colombo, Sri Lanka, Nov. 2, 2018 (AP photo by Eranga Jayawardena).

Sri Lanka’s government was thrown into chaos last week when President Maithripala Sirisena abruptly fired his prime minister, Ranil Wickremesinghe. In his place, Sirisena appointed his once-bitter rival, Mahinda Rajapaksa, a controversial former president who narrowly lost his re-election bid to Sirisena in 2015. Wickremesinghe refused to yield, however, claiming majority support from his fellow lawmakers, prompting Sirisena to suspend the 225-member Parliament.

The tense standoff appeared headed toward a denouement on Thursday, when Rajapaksa said Parliament would reconvene next week. But the president’s office has remained noncommittal, prompting a majority of lawmakers to submit a joint petition to the speaker of Parliament, Karu Jayasuriya, demanding that the legislature be called back into session immediately. For now, Jayasuriya says he has received a verbal commitment from Sirisena to lift Parliament’s suspension on Nov. 7. Meanwhile, Sirisena and Rajapaksa have been working actively behind the scenes to shore up their position against Wickremesinghe, who already survived a no-confidence vote in April.

As Frida Ghitis wrote in her WPR column this week, the crisis has deep implications for one of the region’s oldest democracies. “By and large, one of Sri Lanka’s great political achievements has been to keep its political system going for close to a century,” says Stanley Samarasinghe, a professor of politics at Tulane University. “But this situation has the potential to undermine that.”

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