COLOMBO, Sri Lanka – Sri Lanka is in a constitutional stalemate, torn between two leaders who both claim to be its legitimate prime minister. President Maithripala Sirisena sacked Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe and dissolved his Cabinet on Friday, abruptly ending a strained coalition government between two traditionally opposed political parties. Former strongman President Mahinda Rajapaksa was sworn in as the new prime minister and Parliament was suspended, sowing economic and political uncertainty in the South Asian island nation. A look at Sri Lanka and the origins of its ongoing political crisis:
ALLEGED ASSASSINATION PLOT
Sirisena said in a national address Sunday that he sacked his prime minister mainly because of the alleged involvement of a Cabinet minister in a plot to assassinate him.
Sirisena’s supporters have talked for weeks of an alleged assassination plot against him, but Sunday was the first time Sirisena had commented publicly on it.
A police informant named Namal Kumara who first spoke of the alleged plot told reporters Sunday that Wickremesinghe and his Cabinet colleague, former army commander Sarath Fonseka, were behind it. Kumara has said he has a taped conversation with a senior police officer who allegedly discussed assassinating Sirisena and the former defense secretary, Rajapaksa’s brother.
There was no immediate comment from Wickremesinghe or Fonseka on the allegation.
The alleged plot has been under police investigation, but no arrests have been made.
Wickremesinghe has so far refused to leave his post, and both he and Rajapaksa say they have the majority needed in Parliament to successfully govern.
Sirisena suspended Parliament in an apparent move to give Rajapaksa time to muster support.
RAJAPAKSA’S CHECKERED LEGACY
During Rajapaksa’s two terms as president, his government was credited with defeating the rebel Tamil Tigers and ending a 25-year civil conflict that pitted Sri Lanka’s ethnic Sinhalese majority against its Tamil minority.
After winning the war, Rajapaksa rode on his popularity to change the constitution by scrapping a two-term limit for the presidency, enabling him to stay in power for life. He also took over the powers of appointing election and bribery commission officials, as well as judges.
His ruthlessness with dissenters, the lavish lifestyles of his three sons and nepotism that saw his brothers holding sway in many key institutions gradually eroded Rajapaksa’s popularity, resulting in his defeat in his bid for a third term in 2015.
Rajapaksa’s government also came under fire for taking out billions of dollars in loans from China to build a scantly used port.
Sirisena was health minister in Rajapaksa’s Cabinet and the second-in-command of his party before defecting to run as the opposition candidate in a presidential election called two years ahead of schedule.
After winning the presidency as a neutral candidate in 2015, Sirisena accepted an offer from Rajapaksa to take over his Sri Lanka Freedom Party. Since then, party rivalries have simmered within the government, with Rajapaksa leading a splinter Freedom Party group.
Under Sirisena, Sri Lanka’s Parliament passed a constitutional amendment restoring a two-term limit for the presidency and creating independent commissions for police, judiciary and public service. When neither major party received a clear majority in parliamentary elections, Sirisena’s party signed an agreement with Ranil Wickremesinghe’s party to form a unity government.
Tensions grew between the two parties, with lawmakers sharply disagreeing on everything from economic reforms to ways of upholding pledges to the United Nations to investigate alleged war crimes.
Wickremesinghe’s popularity began to wane after his government signed an agreement giving a Chinese company an 80 percent stake and a 99-year lease of the failing port, seeing it as a way to avoid defaulting on Chinese loans. In early 2017, Wickremesinghe inaugurated the zone over the protests of villagers and monks demanding their residential and farmlands be spared.
Wickremesinghe survived a no-confidence motion in Parliament in April brought by Rajapaksa supporters over allegations involving his appointment of a Singaporean as the central bank governor who is now accused of leaking inside information to benefit his son-in-law in a treasury bond sale.
WHAT’S AT STAKE
Investigations into alleged crimes and corruption by Rajapaksa’s family members, his former Cabinet members and political officials could be dropped by the new Rajapaksa-led government, political watchdogs said. The Sirisena government’s plan with the U.N. Human Rights Council to investigate soldiers accused in the deaths, kidnappings and forced disappearance of civilians and journalists could be shelved because of a hard-line element in Rajapaksa’s government that considers prosecuting soldiers engaged in the civil war unpatriotic.
The billions China loaned Sri Lanka to develop the port and airport — a sign of Rajapaksa’s pro-China leanings — worried neighboring India, which is competing with the world’s second-largest economy for influence in South Asia. Rajapaksa’s return to power could increase China’s clout in Sri Lanka. China’s envoy to Sri Lanka was among the first to congratulate Rajapaksa on his appointment.
Schmall reported from New Delhi.