By Elton Gomes
Sri Lanka will hold snap elections on January 5, President Maithripala Sirisena said on Friday immediately after he dissolved the parliament after it became clear that his prime minister nominee, Mahinda Rajapaksa, was unable to form majority.
The Sri Lankan president has likely made the announcement in a gamble that a new election could get backing for his preferred prime ministerial candidate over Ranil Wickremesinghe, the prime minister who was ousted by Sirisena. A new parliament will be convened on January 17 after nation-wide polls are conducted on January 5.
Sirisena signed a decree dismissing the Sri Lanka’s 225-member assembly and scheduled parliamentary elections nearly two years ahead of schedule. The island nation has been witnessing a political crisis after Wickremesinghe was sacked by Sirisena in October, and Rajapaksa was appointed prime minister.
Wickremesinghe and Rajapaksa have been battling for the prime minister’s post for two weeks as international concern grows over the political tussle.
Opponents condemn move
Wickremesinghe’s United National Party (UNP) was quick to denounce Sirisena’s move to hold snap elections. The UNP, in a tweet, said it “vehemently rejects” the sacking of the parliament.
The party also accused Sirisena of robbing the “people of their rights and democracy”. The UNP further argued that though the president has authority to appoint the prime minister, he does not have the power to sack the incumbent. The party has demanded a parliamentary vote to prove Wickremesinghe’s majority.
Ajith Perera, a lawmaker from the UNP, said that it would urge the Elections Commission to not conduct any elections. “We are appealing to the Elections Commission to resolve this issue without bloodshed,” he said, the New York Times reported.
Only way out?
Dayasiri Jayasekara, a cabinet minister, told Al Jazeera that Sirisena had no choice but to dissolve parliament due to Wickremesinghe’s refusal to step down.
Jayasekara asserted that the president was acting well within his constitutional rights in dismissing the parliament. He said, “The best thing to do now is go for an election. This is what the people also want,” Al Jazeera reported.
Rajapaksa also welcomed Sirisena’s move, and said in a tweet that a “general election will truly establish the will of the people and make way for a stable country”.
Paikiasothy Saravanamuttu, founder executive director of the Centre for Policy Alternatives in Colombo, said that Wickremesinghe’s UNP can challenge Sirisena’s decision after studying the grounds on which the decision was taken. “The immediate impact of this political scenario is either a legal challenge or general elections,” Saravanamuttu said, the Indian Express reported.
Rajitha Keerthi Tennakoon, a political analyst based in Colombo, said the dissolution of parliament was “the only way out of the constitutional crisis”. Tennakoon told Al Jazeera, “It would have been better if the president had asked for the opinion of the Supreme Court, but the constitution does not make that mandatory.”
Sirisena’s decision to dissolve the parliament and hold elections could open the door for the Rajapaksa government “to abuse resources for the forthcoming election”, said Shreen Saroor, a human rights activist who has been spearheading protests against Sirisena’s decision to oust Wickremesinghe, Al Jazeera reported.
A power crisis in Sri Lanka
Towards the end of October, in a surprise move, President Maithripala Sirisena sacked Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe and replaced him with Mahinda Rajapaksa in a hurried ceremony in Colombo.
Wickremesinghe remained insistent that he was the lawful prime minister and called for a parliament sitting to prove his majority. Sirisena then suspended the parliament until November 16.
Critics say that this move was aimed at gathering more support for Rajapaksa, a popular leader who is credited with ending Sri Lanka’s 26-year long civil war, but has also been accused of human rights abuses and corruption.
The political crisis turned deadly a few days later when the bodyguard of sacked minister Arjuna Ranatunga shot at a crowd of people in order to rescue him from a group who strongly backed Sirisena. The shooting claimed one life and two others were wounded.
Speaker Karu Jayasuriya, who has refused to recognise Rajapaksa, has warned that unless parliament reconvenes, the political power crisis could devolve into a “bloodbath”.
The January elections and legislators’ decisions could be key as to how things progress. Wickremesinghe appears to have a narrow lead in the parliament. Prior to the crisis, his United National Party (UNP) had 105 legislators in the 225-member House, while Sirisena and Rajapaksa’s United People’s Freedom Alliance (UPFA) had 95.
After the crisis began, at least five UNP legislators have crossed over to the UPFA. Analysts are expecting the horse-trading to intensify in the coming days. Experts have proposed that Wickremesinghe could end up losing his advantage the longer Rajapaksa is allowed to consolidate power.
The Sri Lankan army has pledged that it won’t interfere in the matter. Wickremesinghe’s supporters said that they will continue protesting his removal, while some legislators have raised the prospect of taking legal action.
Elton Gomes is a staff writer at Qrius
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