Rajapaksa has to prove majority: Sri Lanka Speaker

New premier faces challenges in House while country's allies express concern over crisis

Sri Lankan activists protesting in Colombo on Sunday as the country's political crisis continues. The EU warned last week that it will consider stripping Sri Lanka of its duty-free access if it backs off on human rights commitments, amid worries stok
Sri Lankan activists protesting in Colombo on Sunday as the country's political crisis continues. The EU warned last week that it will consider stripping Sri Lanka of its duty-free access if it backs off on human rights commitments, amid worries stoked by the appointment of former president Mahinda Rajapaksa as the new prime minister. PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

COLOMBO • Sri Lanka's Speaker of Parliament yesterday said he would not accept former president Mahinda Rajapaksa as the new prime minister until he proves he has a majority in Parliament.

President Maithripala Sirisena fired the sitting prime minister, Mr Ranil Wickremesinghe, on Oct 26 and appointed Mr Rajapaksa in his place, sparking a political crisis. Mr Wickremesinghe has denounced his dismissal as unconstitutional and vowed to remain in office until Parliament votes him out.

"The majority of members are of the view that the changes... are unconstitutional and against traditions," Speaker of Parliament Karu Jayasuriya said in a statement.

President Sirisena suspended Parliament after he appointed Mr Rajapaksa, raising concern among political parties at home and among Sri Lanka's traditional allies such as India, the United States and European Union.

Mr Rajapaksa is known as a Sri Lankan nationalist, while being close to China. He is seen as a hero by many among Sri Lanka's Buddhist majority but has been accused by diplomats of serious human rights abuses in the war against rebels from the Tamil minority, which ended during his tenure as president, in 2009.

He has denied the abuse claims and said in a statement after he was sworn in that he wanted to end religious and ethnic divisions in the country of 21 million people.

Mr Jayasuriya said most MPs had called on him not to accept the changes. "I will have to accept the status quo prior to the changes" until a majority in Parliament accepted them, he said.

Last Friday, 118 members of the 225-seat legislature met the Speaker and called for the reconvening of Parliament. On Sunday, President Sirisena said Parliament would be recalled on Nov 14.

Mr Jayasuriya said it was hard for him to be silent when the norms of democracy and the rights of a majority of MPs had been violated.

Foreign Minister Sarath Amunugama, meanwhile, said that Mr Jayasuriya was not being impartial.

The EU warned last week that it will consider stripping Sri Lanka of its duty-free access if it backs off on human rights commitments, amid worries stoked by the appointment of Mr Rajapaksa.

The US and Japan have put on hold some aid to Sri Lanka because of the political crisis, said Sri Lankan government officials.

President Sirisena has said that Mr Wickremesinghe was removed after his Cabinet was dissolved, in line with the Constitution, but Wickremesinghe loyalists said it was unconstitutional.

Separately, thousands of supporters of Mr Rajapaksa headed for the capital Colombo yesterday to rally in support of his controversial nomination as prime minister.

Busloads of Rajapaksa followers were set to arrive from across the country for the rally planned near Parliament in Colombo.

Tens of thousands attended a rally in support of Mr Wickremesinghe last week, amid warnings from Mr Jayasuriya that the dispute could end in a "bloodbath" if MPs are barred from holding a vote.

Mr Jayasuriya said President Sirisena had gone back on previous commitments to recall Parliament this week. "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," he said.

REUTERS, AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on November 06, 2018, with the headline Rajapaksa has to prove majority: Sri Lanka Speaker. Subscribe