Sri Lanka PM fired; Rajapaksa returns

Appointment of former strongman president as premier may herald closer ties with China

Sri Lankan President Maithripala Sirisena (right) handing over documents to former president Mahinda Rajapaksa during the swearing-in ceremony for prime minister at the President's Secretariat at Colombo last Friday. PHOTO: EPA-EFE

COLOMBO • Sri Lankan President Maithripala Sirisena has suspended Parliament, deepening a power struggle that has led to the return of former strongman president Mahinda Rajapaksa and could herald closer ties with China.

Mr Sirisena last Friday evening unexpectedly dismissed Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe and appointed Mr Rajapaksa - who ruled between 2005 and 2015 - as his replacement.

Mr Wickremesinghe is contesting his removal from office and is likely to challenge it as unconstitutional in the courts.

Parliament has been suspended with immediate effect, the Speaker's office said yesterday.

Shortly before the suspension, Mr Wickremesinghe said at a press conference that he still commanded the majority backing in Parliament and called for a special session of the legislature to prove it.

Mr Sirisena's move is being perceived as a way to retain political power by co-opting Mr Rajapaksa's residual popularity among many Sri Lankans, who credit the former president's tough approach with ending the country's brutal 26-year civil war in 2009.

The decision to reappoint Mr Rajapaksa could also have a geopolitical impact, with his ties to China and history of borrowing heavily from Beijing to fund infrastructure projects.

  • Who's who in the crisis

  • Ranil Wickremesinghe

    (above), 69 Sacked as prime minister by the President. He wants to call an emergency meeting of Parliament to prove he still has a majority in the 225-member House; will need at least 113 votes to show he has the confidence of majority of lawmakers.

    Maithripala Sirisena, 67

    Sri Lanka's President. He sacked Mr Wickremesinghe and gave the job to former strongman leader Mahinda Rajapaksa.

    The President also suspended Parliament until Nov 16, thus blocking a meeting to test Mr Wickremesinghe's political support in the House.

    Mahinda Rajapaksa, 72

    Picked by Mr Sirisena as Prime Minister and sworn in last Friday night. Mr Rajapaksa was president between 2005 and 2015, and is popular among many Sri Lankans for his tough approach to ending the country's brutal 26-year civil war in 2009.

The return of Mr Rajapaksa may also dent New Delhi's influence in Colombo, given Mr Wickremesinghe's attempts to rebalance Sri Lanka's foreign relations away from China and towards India and Japan.

"Sirisena brought back Rajapaksa for political self-preservation, but along the way it will reopen the door to Chinese funding," said Mr Shailesh Kumar, Asia director at political risk firm Eurasia Group.

Mr Rajapaksa, who remains enormously popular in Sri Lanka, led a final assault on minority Tamil separatists and ended decades of violence, but was criticised by human-rights groups and foreign governments.

He also took numerous loans from China to fund large infrastructure projects, including the construction of a port in southern Hambantota - his own political constituency - that lost money and was eventually sold to a state-owned Chinese firm in a debt-to-equity swap on a 99-year lease.

Roughly 80 per cent of Sri Lanka's total government revenues go towards paying debt. The decision to hand the port back to China was made by Mr Wickremesinghe - and was roundly criticised.

There was a general sense that Mr Wickremesinghe was not steering the economy properly, and his replacement by Mr Rajapaksa is likely to prove popular with the general public, said Mr Sanjeewa Fernando, a strategist at CT CLSA Securities in Colombo.

With Sri Lanka still reeling under debt payments and global market turmoil making international financing less likely, the appointment of Mr Rajapaksa could ensure a steady source of capital from China at a time when few other countries are interested in investing there, Eurasia's Mr Kumar said.


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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on October 28, 2018, with the headline Sri Lanka PM fired; Rajapaksa returns. Subscribe