Two prime ministers are claiming power in Sri Lanka in a bizarre political struggle that has flung the country’s democracy into crisis.
Violence erupted Friday in Sri Lanka’s Parliament after supporters of one prime minister reportedly flung chairs, books, and chili paste at the opposition.
It was the latest twist in a saga that began abruptly on October 26 when Sri Lankan President Maithripala Sirisena ousted Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe and installed a replacement. Mahinda Rajapaksa, the person who was installed, is a former president who presided over the end of Sri Lanka’s bloody 25-year civil war and is accused of serious human rights abuses during his rule from 2005 to 2015.
Sirisena says that he pulled off this dramatic prime minister switch because his life depended on it — literally.
In a speech in October, days after his political maneuver, Sirisena said that one of Wickremesinghe’s cabinet ministers had been plotting to assassinate him. So Sirisena argued he had no choice but to kick Wickremesinghe out and put someone else in his place.
What makes this situation even stranger is the on-again, off-again alliance between Sirisena and Rajapaksa, the replacement prime minister. Sirisena had been a member of Rajapaksa’s cabinet back when he was president, but broke with him ahead of the 2015 elections. Now Sirisena has forged a political partnership with Rajapaksa once again.
There’s a big problem here, though: Wickremesinghe continues to claim that he is the rightful prime minister and that Sirisena’s move was unconstitutional. Wickremesinghe’s supporters and members of his United National Party (UNP) have called it an “undemocratic coup.”
Rajapaksa — who was sworn in during a hasty ceremony on October 26 — claims he has popular support, including a majority in Parliament, which justifies his takeover.
But Rajapaksa’s elevation is looking more and more like a true power grab. First, President Sirisena suspended Parliament, which critics saw as an attempt to strong-arm votes for Rajapaksa.
Then Sirisena, under intense pressure, said he would reassemble Parliament on November 14, allowing it to vote on its rightful prime minister. But he reneged on the promise and did a complete about-face, dissolving the body and calling for snap elections in January.
Sri Lanka’s highest court stepped in Tuesday, halting the president’s order and putting a stop to snap elections. It allowed Parliament to reconvene on Wednesday, where members held a no-confidence vote on Rajapaksa, rejecting his appointment as replacement prime minister.
Far from resolving the political spat, the vote has plunged the country deeper into crisis. Rajapaksa and his supporters deemed the initial vote as illegitimate. They have since used violence — and chili paste — to prevent a second no-confidence vote on Friday.
That gambit failed, and members of Parliament again rejected Rajapaksa in a second vote on Friday. Rajapaksa, however, has refused to budge, and the president has backed him up.
Parliament will likely be back in session on Monday. But there’s no sign that the weeks-long standoff will be resolved soon. Sri Lanka remains on the precipice of a full-blown political catastrophe, with fears of violence returning in a country that’s still healing from a decades-long civil war.
A tale of two Sri Lankan prime ministers
Rajapaksa served as a popular Sri Lankan president from 2005 to 2015. He is credited with finally resolving the country’s more than 25-year civil war with a separatist group known as the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, or the “Tamil Tigers” for short. The bloody ethnic conflict had been waging since the 1980s, with the largely Hindu minority Tamils seeking independence from the Buddhist Sinhalese majority.
But the tenuous peace Rajapaksa helped secure in 2009 came at a heavy cost. Rajapaksa has been accused of allowing war crimes and other human rights abuses under his watch, particularly during the final, brutal push to end the insurgency — including attacks on civilians and denial of humanitarian aid. Once Rajapaksa secured victory, he resisted international efforts, including by the United Nations, to investigate atrocities.
Rajapaksa has also been tied to the abduction and death of journalists during his tenure. Sirisena, a former minister in Rajapaksa’s cabinet, capitalized on this ahead of presidential elections in 2015, breaking with his former ally and joining the opposition against him.
Sirisena won in 2015, and his upset victory was seen as a promising sign for Sri Lankan democracy. Sirisena promised to crack down on corruption and implement government reforms. He also took a less hostile approach to the United Nations and accepted a resolution to investigate war crimes, part of a broader push for reconciliation in the post-civil war era.
Geopolitics also factored into their political rivalry. Rajapaksa sought closer economic and political relations with China, and when he was president he took loans from the Chinese for pet projects a maritime port and airport in the remote Hambantota area; the airport was dubbed “the world’s emptiest.” Sri Lanka now has serious debts to the Chinese.
The opposition, including Wickremesinghe, criticized these deals at the time, and sought to move closer to India.
Sirisena’s government, with Wickremesinghe as prime minister, hasn’t fulfilled its agenda since it took power in 2015, and the two politicians have repeatedly clashed. Sirisena has been criticized for slow-moving economic and government reforms and stalling on promises of reconciliation. Sirisena’s deteriorating partnership with Wickremesinghe exacerbated this sense of political impasse.
So Sirisena had a strong motive to replace Wickremesinghe, despite the truly astonishing political risks. But he seems destined to be the loser, no matter the outcome: either his gambit will fail, or, if Rajapaksa does manage to take control of the prime ministership, Sirisena will have empowered a former rival, who is more broadly popular and likely won’t defer to the president.
“[Sirisena’s] popularity does not come anywhere close to Rajapaksa’s,” said Jeffrey Feltman, a foreign policy fellow at the Brookings Institute and former UN official. “He doesn’t have the charisma, he doesn’t have the anti-terrorism credentials that create this Trump-like following that Rajapaksa has.”
Sirisena, Feltman added, “is somehow blinded to the realities into which he’s thrust himself.”
An alleged assassination plot, an ousting, and politico limbo in Sri Lanka
The rumblings that prompted Wickremesinghe’s ouster actually started earlier in October, when a report in the Indian newspaper the Hindu said that Sirisena had been accusing Indian intelligence of trying to murder him.
The Indian government denied the report and assured Sirisena that it did not want to kill him. But apparently Sirisena did not let this idea go, and now he says one of Wickremesinghe’s cabinet ministers plotted to kill him, and has claimed Wickremesinghe failed to properly investigate.
“This information (received by investigators) contains a number of details hitherto hidden [from] the people,” Sirisena said on Sunday, two days after he decided to replace Wickremesinghe with Rajapaksa. “The informant has made a statement regarding a Cabinet minister involved in the conspiracy to assassinate me.”
The details of this alleged plot are still murky, as is Sirisena’s decision to kick out Wickremesinghe along with the prime minister’s cabinet officials over it. As Akhilesh Pillalamarri wrote in the Diplomat, Sri Lanka’s constitution “prevents the president from removing a prime minister unless they resigned or lost the confidence of parliament, neither of which has yet happened, according to Wickremesinghe.”
So Wickremesinghe says he’s still the prime minister. And his party is backing him — strongly, it turns out:
Rajapaksa was sworn in as prime minister on October 26, though, and he claimed he had the support in Parl