In a sudden move, President Maithripala Sirisena on Friday pulled his faction out of Sri Lanka’s ruling coalition and within hours appointed former President Mahinda Rajapaksa as Prime Minister. The startling developments led to the collapse of the country’s first national unity government, with Mr. Sirisena joining hands once again with the leader he ousted in 2015.
Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe’s United National Party (UNP), however, maintained that Mr. Rajapaksa’s appointment was “illegal and unconstitutional.”
“I am still the Prime Minister. This is an unconstitutional swearing-in,” Mr. Wickremesinghe told a local television channel.
“The appointment of @PresRajapaksa as the Prime Minister is unconstitutional & illegal. This is an anti democratic coup. #lka,” Finance and Media Minister Mangala Samaraweera, a senior UNP figure, tweeted.
In a letter to Mr. Wickremesinghe, Mr. Sirisena said he was using his powers to remove him from the post of Prime Minister with immediate effect. Mr. Wickremesinghe, in turn, in a letter to the President said he was the constitutionally appointed Prime Minister, and commanded “the confidence” of parliament. Both leaders cited Article 42(4) of Sri Lanka’s Constitution to declare contradictory positions.
The growing friction between Mr. Sirisena and Mr. Wickremesinghe within the country’s uneasy coalition was no secret. Mr. Sirisena’s reported outburst at a Cabinet meeting last week — over an alleged assassination plot targeting him and the development of a container terminal in Colombo — further exposed the discord.
Amid escalating tensions within government, Mr. Wickremesinghe’s strongly worded statement after his recent meeting with Prime Minister Narendra Modi in New Delhi, on India’s disappointment with the pace of its projects in the island, appeared to target Mr. Sirisena. A top source close to the President told The Hindu the statement had “made him [Mr. Sirisena] rather bitter” and might have even been the last straw.
However, Mr. Sirisena’s exit and dramatic re-alignment with Mr. Rajapaksa, whose government he quit in late 2014 to become President, was not expected at least until the Budget debate in early November.
Following a high-level meeting Friday evening with party colleagues, which few in Colombo were aware of, the United People’s Freedom Alliance, chaired by Mr. Sirisena, announced its decision to quit the unity government. The news of Mr. Rajapaksa being sworn in as Prime Minister followed soon thereafter, raising questions about the constitutional validity of the move. Depending on different readings of at least two related provisions in the Sri Lankan Constitution, experts were divided on the legality of Mr. Rajapaksa’s appointment.
As of midnight on Friday, the Wickremesinghe-led United National Front remains the largest parliamentary group, with 106 seats. The UPFA, including supporters of Mr. Rajapaksa, who until Friday morning sat in the opposition, has little less than 100 members.
The turbulent turn of events comes less than a week after Mr. Wickremesinghe returned from New Delhi. “We are aware of the developments and are watching the situation closely,” official sources in New Delhi said