Sri Lanka heads for showdown as Rajapakse rallies support
AFP – Former Sri Lankan president Mahinda Rajapakse rallied tens of thousands of supporters in a show of strength 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 October 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 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 October 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.
– Severe violations –
Sirisena announced on Sunday that parliament would reconvene on November 14, a week later than he had promised, prolonging the power struggle that has crippled the country.
Addressing his first public rally with Rajapakse since triggering the crisis, Sirisena vowed not to retreat from his hardline position.
"I will not take a step back, I will keep moving forward," he said, telling opponents to accept his decision.
Sirisena has pressed ahead with forming a new government, naming an ally to a senior leadership post in parliament, despite opposition.
"Assumed the Office of Leader of the House in Sri Lanka parliament," Dinesh Gunawardena said on Twitter on 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.
The Rajapakse family still wields enormous power and influence in Sri Lanka, despite members and close officials being accused of siphoning off billions of dollars before his ouster in 2015.
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.
Last week, Attorney General Jayantha Jayasuriya joined the speaker in refusing to endorse Sirisena’s sacking of Wickremesinghe for Rajapakse.