Sri Lanka’s supreme court has struck down President Maithripala Sirisena’s attempt to dissolve parliament and call fresh elections in the latest dramatic development in six weeks of political turmoil.
Mr Sirisena had announced the dissolution of parliament in November, after failing to secure support in the body for his earlier attempt to dismiss his prime minister Ranil Wickremesinghe and replace him with Mahinda Rajapaksa, a controversial former president. He called a parliamentary election for January 5, in what Mr Wickremesinghe’s supporters condemned as an illegal attempt to seal a “coup”.
On Thursday, the supreme court ruled that Mr Sirisena’s move to dissolve parliament was unconstitutional, saying that such a step could only be taken after a parliament had been sitting for four and a half years.
“As a country we all have to celebrate the fact that we have an authentic and an independent judiciary that has acted as a check on the power of the executive,” said Sajith Premadasa, deputy leader of Mr Wickremesinghe’s United National party.
Mr Wickremesinghe, who asserts that he is still the legitimate prime minister despite Mr Sirisena’s attempted dismissal of him, called on the president to “promptly respect” the court’s judgment.
The ruling came a day after Mr Wickremesinghe won a vote of confidence in parliament, securing the backing of 117 of its 225 members. On December 3, an appeals court had issued an interim order blocking Mr Rajapaksa from carrying out prime ministerial duties until further hearings on his appointment.
The political chaos has added to the challenges facing Sri Lanka’s economy, blocking progress on a national budget for next year and casting doubt on foreign economic assistance.
Mr Sirisena’s camp had hoped that Mr Rajapaksa’s Sri Lanka People’s Front party, which has enjoyed recent successes in local elections, would sweep to victory in the parliamentary election the president had planned for January. Mr Sirisena served as a minister in Mr Rajapaksa’s government before running against him in the 2015 presidential election. After winning, he entered into a government of national unity with Mr Wickremesinghe’s party.
Analysts say the power-sharing agreement has been undermined by an awkward personal relationship between the president and the prime minister and by the decline in popularity both have suffered amid slowing economic growth. Some have portrayed Mr Sirisena’s rapprochement with Mr Rajapaksa as a pragmatic response to the latter’s resurgent popularity, which presented a potential threat to the president.
While he remains popular among the country’s Sinhalese majority, Mr Rajapaksa was the object of fierce international criticism over his handling of the final months of a civil war against Tamil separatists, in which tens of thousands of civilians were killed. Mr Rajapaksa also welcomed a controversial Chinese investment programme, including a port named after him on the country’s south coast, which subsequently passed into Chinese ownership after financial problems.
Mr Rajapaksa’s son Namal, a prominent figure in his father’s party, wrote on Twitter that it would respect the court’s ruling, even as he criticised its decision to block the proposed election. “It’s sad that some think the aspirations of 225 members [of parliament] are [more] important than the people’s real need,” he wrote. “We will continue our fight until you have the right to choose your leaders.”
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