Rajapakse rally gathers as Sri Lanka showdown toughens

Publish: 3:31 PM, November 5, 2018 | Update: 3:31:PM, November 5, 2018

COLOMBO – Thousands of supporters of former Sri Lankan president Mahinda Rajapakse headed for the capital on Monday to rally in support of his controversial nomination as prime minister, as the island’s constitutional crisis deepened.

Sri Lanka has been gripped by political turmoil since President Maithripala Sirisena sacked his former ally, prime minister Ranil Wickremesinghe, on October 26 and appointed Rajapakse in his place.

Busloads of Rajapakse followers were arriving Monday from across the country for the rally planned near parliament in the capital Colombo.

Parliament has been suspended while Rajapakse seeks support for a vote of confidence by tempting defectors from other parties.

The former strongman remains a popular if polarising figure in Sri Lanka politics. His iron-fisted rule ended a long and bloody civil war that claimed 100,000 lives.

But his decade in power was marred by serious allegations of rights abuses, corruption, forced disappearances and the persecution of the island’s sizeable Tamil minority.

Tens of thousands attended a rally in support of Wickremesinghe last week, who says his sacking was illegal and wants parliament reconvened to prove his still commands majority support.

Parliamentary speaker Karu Jayasuriya has urged the president to call together legislators, warning the dispute could end in a “bloodbath” if MPs are barred from holding a vote.

In his most strongly worded statement to date, the speaker warned Monday he would not recognise Rajapakse as prime minister and that the president had violated the constitution by sacking Wickremesinghe and suspending
parliament.

“Until the new faction (of Rajapakse) is able to prove a majority in parliament, I will recognise the situation that prevailed prior to October 26,” Jayasuriya said in a one-page statement.

“I have to agree with the majority of parliament who believe that the president’s actions are undemocratic, unconstitutional and against all norms of parliamentary procedure,” added Jayasuriya, who is originally from
Wickremesinghe’s United National Party but holds a neutral position in parliament.

– Severe violations –

Sirisena announced on Sunday that parliament would reconvene on November 14, a week later than he had promised, prolonging the power struggle that has crippled the country.

But his faction has pressed ahead with forming a new government, naming an ally to a senior leadership post in parliament despite the speaker refusing to recognise the appointment.

“Assumed the Office of Leader of the House in Sri Lanka parliament,” Dinesh Gunawardena said on Twitter on Monday.

Rajapakse has also already assumed duties as Finance Minister, announcing last week a slew of tax concessions and price cuts in a move seen as a sop to voters.

Rajapakse loyalists have been accused of storming state media organisations and other key institutions.

The Rajapakse family still wields enormous power and influence in Sri Lanka, despite members of the clan and close officials being accused of siphoning off billions of dollars during before his ouster in 2015.

But powerful forces oppose his appointment, suggesting his grip on power could be tenuous and the rift between the rivals could widen.

Last week, Attorney General Jayantha Jayasuriya joined the speaker in refusing to endorse Sirisena’s controversial sacking of Wickremesinghe for Rajapakse.

Jayasuriya said it would be “inappropriate” for him to side either way — but official sources said he took the unusual step to avoid publicly clashing with Sirisena.