Sri Lanka Parliament, President in epic battle
AFP – Sri Lanka’s speaker on Sunday accused President Maithripala Sirisena of usurping parliament and urged public servants to defy his "illegal orders", as the president scrambled to defend his controversial sacking of the legislature.
Speaker Karu Jayasuriya said Sirisena’s actions over the past two weeks in sacking prime minister Ranil Wickremesinghe and dissolving parliament undermined the freedoms of the people.
"I have watched over the last two weeks as the executive branch has seized the rights and usurped the powers of members of parliament who were elected to represent the people," he said.
"I call upon all public servants to refuse to execute any illegal orders they may receive, no matter from whom….We must all act with patriotism and independence to safeguard the future of democracy in our country."
He urged public officials to uphold "the independence of the public service, police and the judiciary".
Sirisena triggered an unprecedented constitutional crisis last month when he sacked Wickremesinghe and replaced him with former strongman Mahinda Rajapakse before suspending parliament.
In his first address to the nation since the sacking of parliament, Sirisena defended his move — which has alarmed the international community — saying violent clashes among rival MPs could have led to "civil unrest" across the country if the legislature had met.
Sirisena said there were media reports that politicians would clash during a vote to decide between the two men claiming the premiership.
"If I allowed the parliament to meet on November 14, there would have been violence in the House and it could have spread to our villagers and towns," Sirisena said in his televised address. "I acted to prevent civil unrest."
He also claimed that he was disturbed by reports that MPs were being "bought" for up to $2.8 million dollars each. His party had secured the defection of eight MPs from Wickremesinghe’s side.
Sirisena’s rivals maintain that he had no constitutional power to sack the assembly until it completed four-and-a-half out of its five-year term that ends in August 2020.
Despite bowing to international pressure and repeatedly promising that he would reconvene parliament, he instead dismissed MPs and called a snap election for January 5, nearly two years ahead of schedule.
Wickremesinghe’s United National Party as well as several other groups representing a majority of 124 members in the 225-member House are due to petition the highest court on Monday against Sirisena’s actions.
"Since the president has prevented parliament from ruling on the legitimacy of the president’s actions, it will be up to the Supreme Court to determine the legality of these actions," Jayasuriya said.
– International ridicule –
Sirisena’s party had acknowledged that it did not have a majority in the assembly, despite arranging defections.
The president’s new foreign minister, Sarath Amunugama, had told diplomats on Saturday that the assembly was sacked because speaker Jayasuriya planned to block an address to the legislature by the president.
Jayasuriya hit back saying the excuse was laughable.
"I wish that the purported minister had proposed a more honest and plausible excuse for the actions of his colleagues, that would have drawn less ridicule to our country on the world stage," Jayasuriya said.
"Based on this fiction, several of his cohorts have openly threatened to send me to jail," Jayasuriya said, adding that he would gladly face any consequence for his actions to defend the rights of MPs.
Wickremesinghe insists he still heads the government and has refused to vacate the prime minister’s official residence in Colombo until the highest court decides on the power struggle. Hundreds of his supporters staged a candle-light vigil near a lake in the capital to protest his sacking.
His rival Rajapakse said that nobody would stop the snap elections going ahead.
"The international community must realise that this is democracy. They must understand our position. We are seeking a mandate from the people," he said.
Only China has recognised the appointment of Rajapakse, who during his decade as president relied heavily on Beijing for both diplomatic and financial support as the West shunned him over his human rights record.
The United States has led a chorus of international voices expressing concern over threats to democracy in the island of 21 million people strategically located in the Indian Ocean.
"The US is deeply concerned by news the Sri Lanka parliament will be dissolved, further deepening the political crisis," the US State Department said in a statement.
Election monitors have questioned the legality of the election.
The People’s Action for Free and Fair Elections said it had already asked the independent Elections Commission to seek an opinion from the attorney general and an order from the Supreme Court.