Colombo, Sri Lanka – The United Nations chief has urged Sri Lanka’s President Maithripala Sirisena to reconvene parliament and allow legislators decide between the two men claiming to be the South Asian country’s rightful prime minister.
A statement from Antonio Guterres’ office on Friday said the secretary-general called on Sirisena “to revert to parliamentary procedures and allow the parliament to vote as soon as possible” during a phone conversation a day earlier.
The appeal came as Sri Lanka’s week-long political crisis showed no sign of abating, with legislators from Wickremesinghe’s United National Party (UNP) accusing members of newly appointed Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa’s party of offering them millions of dollars in bribes to switch support.
Sri Lanka has been gripped by constitutional chaos since October 26 when Sirisena fired Wickremesinghe in a shock move and replaced him with Rajapaksa, a former president he had defeated in a 2015 election.
While the president has the authority to appoint the prime minister, he does not have the power to sack the incumbent, legal experts have said, citing constitutional amendments passed three years ago.
The deposed prime minister denounced his sacking as illegal and demanded a vote in parliament to prove his majority.
Sirisena promptly suspended the 225-member House until November 16 in an apparent plan to allow Rajapaksa, who did not appear to have the majority required to remain in the post, to tempt legislators to his side.
In his phone conversation with Sirisena, Guterres also offered the president his help in facilitating talks between the two opposing sides.
Western countries have yet to recognise Rajapaksa’s appointment but Sirisena has so far resisted calls from the United States, European Union, United Kingdom and Canada, as well as tens of thousands of protesters in Sri Lanka’s capital, Colombo, to reconvene parliament.
In a Twitter post, Sirisena said he assured Guterres that Rajapaksa’s appointment was “done in keeping with” Sri Lanka’s constitution.
Defections and bribery allegations
Analysts said Sirisena’s suspension of parliament was appearing to pay off.
A sixth legislator from the UNP, which had the support of 106 members prior to the crisis, crossed over to the Sirisena-led United People’s Freedom Alliance (UPFA) and took up a cabinet post on Friday afternoon.
A member of the Tamil National Alliance (TNA) also defected to Sirisena’s side, becoming the first legislator from the coalition of parties representing the Tamil minority to do so.
The UPFA, which insists parliament will remain shut until November 16 despite contradictory statements from political leaders this week, now has the backing of 104 legislators and claims more parliamentarians will switch sides in the coming days.
The defections, however, have led to allegations of bribery.
Palitha Range Bandara, a UNP member, on Friday alleged a “systematic attempt” from the opposite camp to buy the support of legislators.
“I got many calls. They offered me 500 million in Sri Lankan rupees and when I asked how much that was in dollars they said $2.8m. I have the evidence,” he told reporters, pledging to file a criminal complaint at an anti-corruption watchdog.
Namal Rajapaksa, the newly appointed prime minister’s son and a member of parliament, said his party was “unaware of any such incidents”.
Bandara’s claim was a “serious allegation” that must be investigated, he said in a Twitter post.
Earlier in the week, another UNP member also accused China of funding Rajapaksa’s alleged effort to bribe legislators – a claim Beijing dismissed as “groundless and irresponsible”.
During his 10-year rule, Rajapaksa moved Sri Lanka closer to China, borrowing millions of dollars to fund a huge infrastructure drive.
Meanwhile, frustrated by Sirisena’s refusal to lift the suspension of the legislature, politicians, lawyers and human rights activists have urged Speaker Karu Jayasuriya to defy the president’s orders and recall parliament.
On Friday morning, more than 100 legislators from the UNP, the TNA and the People’s Liberation Front (JVP) met Jayasuriya, who previously warned of a “bloodbath” if the crisis dragged on, at the parliament house in Colombo and submitted a petition imploring him to resume sessions.
The UNP said the motion had the backing of 118 legislators and said the figure indicated that Rajapaksa did not have the majority of 113 that is required to remain in the post.
It also said it submitted a no-confidence motion against Rajapaksa on Friday and said the vote will be put on the agenda as soon as parliament reconvenes.
Leaders of the TNA and the JVP, which together command the support of 21 parliamentarians at present, have previously denounced Sirisena’s actions as unconstitutional. But it is not clear if members of the two minority parties would back either of the rival leaders in a confidence vote.
Wickemesinghe, meanwhile, remained holed up at the prime minister’s official residence in Colombo, ignoring calls from the UPFA to vacate the premises.
Wimal Weerawansa, an aide to Rajapaksa, vowed on Friday to file charges of “misusing public property” against the deposed leader.
Wickeremesinghe “cannot hold on till November 16,” he told a news conference. “We have no intention of making life easy for him.”