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Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 14 November 2018

Sri Lanka speaker defies president and summons parliament

MPs say they are being offered millions of dollars to support president-backed prime minister

Sri Lankan MPs who are demanding the convening of parliament cheer after a meeting with the speaker in Colombo on November 2, 2018. AP Photo
Sri Lankan MPs who are demanding the convening of parliament cheer after a meeting with the speaker in Colombo on November 2, 2018. AP Photo

Sri Lanka's parliament speaker on Friday summoned the assembly to meet next week in defiance of the president as a constitutional crisis darkened with an MP saying he was offered millions of dollars and a minister's post to defect to a rival camp.

With the Indian Ocean nation torn between rival prime ministers Ranil Wickremesinghe and Mahinda Rajapakse, speaker Karu Jayasuriya said he could no longer ignore demands for parliament to meet to end the week-old feud.

Amid growing international concern over the standoff, Mr Jayasuriya convened parliament to meet next Wednesday.

President Maithripala Sirisena suspended parliament until November 16 after sacking Mr Wickremesinghe as premier and replacing him with former authoritarian president Mr Rajapakse.

Mr Wickremesinghe has refused to accept the dismissal and has remained at the prime minister's official residence for the past week amid nearly daily twists in the saga.

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Mr Sirisena at first lifted the suspension, but with observers saying his candidate Mr Rajapakse did not have enough support to win a parliamentary vote, the president's party said late on Thursday that the assembly would remain shut.

"The speaker met a majority of MPs at a committee room today and promised he will open parliament on November 7," Mr Jayasuriya's spokesman said.

The meeting was attended by 118 of the 225 members of parliament in a new sign that Mr Sirisena would not win a vote on Mr Rajapakse, whose decade as president up to 2015 was marked by the brutal end of the Tamil civil war and corruption claims.

Mr Wickremesinghe and his allies are confident they can prove a majority. But intense behind-the-scenes lobbying to tempt defectors broke into the open on Friday.

A senior member of Mr Wickremesinghe's United National Party, Range Bandara, said he was offered US$2.8 million (Dh10.3m) and a ministry to switch sides and would go to the anti-graft commission.

"I have a phone recording of a former minister in the Rajapakse camp trying to approach me," Mr Bandara told reporters. "A broker offered me the $2.8 million and the ministry of law and order."

Another Wickremesinghe loyalist, deputy minister Ranjan Ramanayake has already accused China of financing the defection of MPs to the Rajapakse-Sirisena camp. China has strongly rejected the claims.

The Sri Lanka Muslim Congress (SLMC) party, which has seven MPs, said its members had also rejected offers to join the Sirisena-Rajapakse camp.

"There are dealers and brokers trying to buy over MPs both wholesale and retail," SLMC leader Rauff Hakeem said. "This is a disgrace, an assault on the dignity of honourable members of parliament."

Mr Hakeem said only an early parliament meeting could end the horse trading.

Mr Jayasuriya said he told Mr Sirisena in a meeting this week that he had not been consulted on the suspension of parliament.

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"I have been getting numerous appeals from diplomats and civil society groups to intervene and end this crisis," he said.

Mr Wickremesinghe's party says that the president wants to shut parliament for as long as possible to give himself more time to secure votes for Mr Rajapakse.

"It is clear that Rajapakse does not have the numbers in parliament to justify getting the prime minister post," UNP spokesman Harsha de Silva said. "They are now trying to wriggle out of this crisis."

Mr De Silva said Mr Rajapakse's brother, Gotabhaya Rajapakse, met Mr Wickremesinghe on Thursday to discuss ending the standoff but no accord was reached.

"The PM's position is clear. No compromise," Mr de Silva said.

There was no immediate reaction from Mr Rajapakse or his party to the speaker's move to call parliament, nor to the allegations of offers to MPs.

In the meantime, Mr Rajapakse's administration ordered cuts to prices of essential food and taxes in what was seen as a bid to woo public support.

The cuts were applied on Friday, but MPs who met with the speaker in parliament vowed that any decisions made by Mr Rajapakse would not be honoured.