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Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 11 December 2018

Sri Lanka parliament rejects new prime minister in latest twist of crisis

No-confidence motion passed against Mahinda Rajapaksa, the hastily-sworn in and disputed premier

Sri Lanka Police Special Task Force (STF) soldiers stand guard near the Sri Lankan Supreme Court in Colombo on November 13, 2018. AFP
Sri Lanka Police Special Task Force (STF) soldiers stand guard near the Sri Lankan Supreme Court in Colombo on November 13, 2018. AFP

Sri Lanka’s parliament on Wednesday passed a no-confidence motion against the newly-installed but disputed Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa, the latest twist in the South Asian island’s political crisis.

The country was plunged into deeper political turmoil after the vote as it was left without a recognised leader and Mr Rajapaksa’s supporters said they would not recognise the vote as it had not been scheduled.

Speaker Karu Jayasuriya said the no-confidence vote against Mr Rajapaksa was supported by 122 members of the 225-member house.

"A majority voted in favour of the no-confidence motion and thus the no-confidence motion was passed," Mr Jayasuriya said in a statement. He had already protested the moves, calling the president's sacking of the prime minister to bring a former leader back to power a non-violent coup.

It was not immediately clear what President Maithripala Sirisena, who triggered the crisis by firing Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe and naming Mr Rajapaksa to the job last month, would do now.

He dissolved parliament last week and ordered elections for January as a way to break the deadlock but the Supreme Court ordered a suspension of that decree on Tuesday until it had heard petitions challenging the decree as unconstitutional. After the ruling was announced, hundreds of opposition supporters who had gathered near the court cheered and lit firecrackers.

Amid mounting pressure from political opponents and foreign governments, including the United States and the EU, to convene Parliament to end the impasse, Mr Sirisena announced the legislature would return on Wednesday but delayed the convening of parliament further by dissolving parliament.

Mr Rajapaksa had not garnered enough support in parliament to secure a necessary majority and the president’s moves were seen as a delaying tactic.

Mr Rajapaksa is a controversial figure who served as Sri Lanka’s president from 2005 to 2015. He is widely viewed as a strongman populist who crushed dissent in power, ended the civil war with the Tamil Tigers through a bloody offensive and undermined Sri Lankan democracy with his reemergence in the country’s politics.

Mr Wickremesinghe has remained at the official prime minister’s residence, known as Temple Trees, surrounded by supporters and refusing to leave. The no-confidence motion does not guarantee that he will be restored as the country’s premier as Mr Sirisena retains the power to choose the next prime minister. But the ousted prime minister celebrated the decision and said he would continue with his job.

"We will now take steps to ensure that the government in place before the 26th Oct will continue. I wish to inform all government servants and police that you cannot carry out illegal orders from the purported government that has failed to demonstrate the confidence of the people," he tweeted.

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Read more:

Sri Lanka’s new foreign minister: crisis was a case of who reached for the gun first

Tamils fear bloody return of 'Lord of the Rings' Mahinda Rajapaksa

Sri Lankan press freedom crushed following Mahinda Rajapaksa’s return

Inside Temple Trees: Prime minister’s bungalow becomes Sri Lanka’s seed of resistance

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According to the constitution, the president has to appoint a prime minister who in his opinion can command the majority in parliament.

But Mr Sirisena, who had a fractious relationship with the man he would oust, has said he would never appoint Mr Wickremesinghe to the job again.

Mr Rajapaksa's son Namal, who is also an MP, said the vote had not been put on the day's business and hence was not valid. Father and son left the chamber before the vote was taken and their supporters shouted slogans in support, including “this is illegal”.

But Western powers and constitutional experts have expressed concern that Mr Sirisena’s decision was not within the confines of the constitution, making it an illegal move in one of Asia’s oldest democracies.

The crisis has paralysed the running of the country and threatened serious damage to the tourism-dependent island. On Wednesday, the central bank unexpectedly raised its key policy rates, a move aimed at defending a faltering rupee as foreign capital outflows picked up. But the currency, slid further to a record low.

Highlighting the tumultuous state of Sri Lankan politics, Mr Sirisena was an ally who turned against Mr Rajapaksa for the 2015 race – before changing allegiance again to make him his prime minister last month.