Rajapaksa bows out, ending tussle for Sri Lankan PM job

Mr Mahinda Rajapaksa with supporters yesterday after backing down from the premier's post that was controversially conferred on him.
Mr Mahinda Rajapaksa with supporters yesterday after backing down from the premier's post that was controversially conferred on him.PHOTO: REUTERS

COLOMBO • Sri Lanka's crisis looked to be over yesterday as strongman Mahinda Rajapaksa bowed out of a power battle that had crippled the strategically located island for seven weeks and sent it heading for a possible debt default.

Mr Rajapaksa held a multi-religious service at his home, where he signed a letter backing down from the post of prime minister controversially conferred on him on Oct 26.

The 73-year-old ex-president made no immediate statement to reporters, but his aides said he was returning a fleet of limousines he had used since his disputed appointment.

President Maithripala Sirisena triggered the political turmoil by sacking premier Ranil Wickremesinghe and replacing him with his flamboyant former foe Rajapaksa.

But Mr Wickremesinghe insisted that his sacking was illegal and refused to step down, leaving the nation of 21 million people with two men claiming the premiership.

Mr Rajapaksa was then defeated in a no-confidence motion on Nov 14.

However, the following day, Speaker Karu Jayasuriya ruled that he would recognise neither man as prime minister, leaving Sri Lanka effectively without a government.

The country was then heading for a government shutdown as Parliament failed to approve spending for next year and credit rating agencies downgraded its debt amid fears of default.

Mr Rajapaksa's son, Namal, announced last Friday that his father - who as president ended Sri Lanka's civil war in 2009 amid allegations of grave rights abuses - would throw in the towel "to ensure stability".

Mr Rajapaksa's decision came after the Supreme Court confirmed that he could not exercise the powers of a prime minister until he proved his legitimacy, which, without enough support in Parliament, was impossible.

In a major climbdown, Mr Sirisena agreed last Friday to reinstate Mr Wickremesinghe today, despite previously insisting he would never reappoint him as prime minister.

An MP from his party, Mr Lakshman Yapa Abeywardena, told reporters that the President agreed to the latest measures to avoid a government shutdown after Dec 31.

"If the stalemate continued, we would have ended up without a Budget for 2019 and the government would not have been able to function," Mr Abeywardena said.

Last Wednesday, the legislature had voted overwhelmingly to demand the reinstatement of Mr Wickremesinghe.

The leftist JVP, or the People's Liberation Front, insists that Mr Sirisena should be investigated for orchestrating what they call a coup and that there should also be an impeachment process.

AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on December 16, 2018, with the headline 'Rajapaksa bows out, ending tussle for Sri Lankan PM job'. Print Edition | Subscribe