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Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 13 November 2018

Sri Lanka crisis: everything you need to know

The country has two prime ministers heading for a showdown in parliament

Supporters of Ranil Wickremesinghe protest against the Sri Lankan prime minister's removal near his official residence in Colombo. AFP
Supporters of Ranil Wickremesinghe protest against the Sri Lankan prime minister's removal near his official residence in Colombo. AFP

Sri Lanka was plunged into political and economic uncertainty last week after its president sacked the prime minister and replaced him with a man he once pledged to investigate for human rights abuses, all the while suspending parliament for three weeks so no vote on the country’s true leader could be held.

Here’s all you need to know about the crisis engulfing the island nation and the key players involved.

On October 26, Sri Lankan President Maithripala Sirisena removed his United People’s Freedom Alliance from the country’s national unity government. On the same day, he announced that he had appointed a new prime minister.

The problem was that the then Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe, who leads the United National Party (UNP), had not been unseated in accordance with the constitution, so he has refused to leave office, literally. He remains camped inside the prime minister's official Temple Trees residence in Colombo, which is surrounded by his supporters to prevent his removal.

The president has refused to convene parliament, suspending it for three weeks, even though the incumbent prime minister says he has a parliamentary majority and can prove it in an immediate vote. Some observers say Mr Sirisena is trying to buy time to court enough support for his replacement.

Mr Wickremesinghe and Mr Sirisena have had a fractious relationship in which each man has tried to undermine the other, leading to a dysfunctional ruling coalition. The pair’s relationship has become almost untenable after rows over economic reforms, investigations into military abuses against the Tamil minority in the last weeks of the civil war in 2009, and an alleged assassination plot hatched in New Delhi that Mr Sirisena claims his prime minister had a hand in.

The latter survived a no-confidence vote in April that was quietly supported by the president. Not patient enough to wait until elections in 2019, the president made his move last week in what Mr Wickremesinghe has decried as a “coup”.

The man he is supposed to be replaced by has posed more questions than answers to Sri Lanka’s problems. Mahinda Rajapakse, the country’s former president, is a man who divides opinion in the country. He is popular among the majority Sinhalese population but rights groups, journalists and the Tamil minority fear that Sri Lanka will return to the dark days of his rule between 2005 and 2015. He is accused of rights abuses, corruption, a crackdown on essential freedoms and saddling the country with billions of dollars of debt to China during his time in power.

His popularity among voters that saw him sweep two terms quickly dissipated after he appeared bolder with every year that he ruled. He scrapped two-term limits for the presidency in a bid to keep the position for life and became known for handing influential positions to family members. His fall from grace resulted in him being voted out in 2015.

All three figures are now headed for a showdown, but when that takes place remains unclear. Mr Rajapakse told a meeting at his office, barely two kilometres away from his political rival's, that parliament will convene on November 5. But the president’s spokesperson said parliament will convene only after November 16 when the suspension of parliament is lifted. It remains unclear when lawmakers will vote on who should be the prime minister. The winner would require 113 votes from the 225-seat parliament.

The speaker of the parliament, Karu Jayasuriya, has refused to take sides but warned that if the crisis is not resolved inside the halls of parliament then there could be a “bloodbath” on the streets of the country that has emerged from decades of civil war.

A shooting at the Petroleum Ministry on Saturday killed two people and wounded one in the first violence related to the turmoil. On Tuesday, thousands of Sri Lankans protested in the capital to demand that Mr Sirisena immediately convene parliament for a vote.

Whether the president does a U-turn and resolves this crisis of his own creation is far from clear. Mr Rajapakse retains support and his appointment is seen as a move by Mr Sirisena to strengthen his own position.

What has perplexed observers is that Mr Sirisena was appointed on a mandate to look into Mr Rajapakse’s role in the killings of Tamils at the end of the civil war almost a decade ago. Not only has he failed to investigate him, his wider family and his allies, but he has now picked him as his right-hand man.

With his appointment, investigations into alleged crimes and corruption within Mr Rajapakse’s circle could be dropped if he leads the government, political observers said.

And, for many Sri Lankans, the president's actions are not only an affront to Mr Wickremesinghe, but an attack on Asia’s oldest democracy.

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Read more:

Sri Lanka political crisis splits allies

Editorial: Sri Lanka's political dramas expose its wider vulnerabilities

Sri Lanka president suspends parliament after sacking PM

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