Colombo: Sri Lanka is now effectively a country without a prime minister, with weeks of political turmoil culminating today in a brawl on the floor of the country’s parliament.
Two men believe they have the right to call themselves prime minister: the democratically elected leader, Ranil Wickremesinghe, who was sacked by the president on 26 October and the pro-China strongman, Mahinda Rajapaksa, who was appointed in his place.
Tensions boiled over Thursday when rival lawmakers exchanged blows in the middle of the chamber, with some Rajapaksa supporters running towards the speaker, Karu Jayasuriya, shouting and throwing water bottles, trash cans and books at him. Members of Wickremesinghe’s party surrounded Jayasuriya to protect him, but the speaker adjourned the house as the violence continued for nearly half an hour.
Earlier, Jayasuriya told parliament he considered there was no functioning prime minister or cabinet after a majority had voted against Rajapaksa and since President Maithripala Sirisena had not appointed another leader.
The prolonged chaos, which countries including the US, China and India are watching with increasing concern, has stalled foreign aid and a $1.5 billion International Monetary Fund program, threatening to grind the entire country to a halt. It has also roiled the nation’s bonds and currency, which was already dropping to fresh lows amid the emerging market sell-off. The island nation’s rupee fell to a new low of 176.80 per dollar on Thursday.
“The crisis must be ended as soon as possible, because the uncertainty is going to drive investment out of the country and leave government services in a state of paralysis," said Jehan Perera, executive director of the National Peace Council of Sri Lanka. “If the parties are not able to work out an accommodation, then it needs to go back to court."
Rajapaksa, who lost a no-confidence motion in parliament on Wednesday, challenged Wickremesinghe to a general election to let the people decide the next government of the island nation.
He accepted the prime minister-ship because of the country’s economic woes and to lead an interim government until general elections were held, Rajapaksa said.
Siriseena had earlier dissolved the parliament and called for fresh elections, but after Wickremesinghe led a legal challenge to the constitutionality of the president’s move, the Supreme Court late on Tuesday stayed Sirisena’s order and allowed the house to reconvene.
On Wednesday, an opposition Marxist party handed over a no confidence motion to the house speaker as parliament met for the first time since Sirisena plunged the country into crisis.
The motion challenged the appointment of Rajapaksa, as well as the country’s freshly appointed cabinet ministers, as illegal. When the house speaker asked for a vote on the matter, as many as 120 members — a majority in the 225-seat parliament — stood up against Rajapaksa, according to Lakshman Kiriella, a member of Wickremesinghe’s United National Party.
The speaker declared the motion was passed by a voice vote but was prevented from doing a roll call, Wickremesinghe said on Wednesday. “Parliament voted that they have no confidence in the government under Rajapaksa," Wickremesinghe said. “It is an illegal government."
Sirisena rejected the no-confidence motion brought against his nominee for prime minister, saying proper parliamentary procedures had not been followed.
The move to fire the prime minister and unilaterally appoint Rajapaksa, who ruled between 2005 and 2015 but was criticized for human rights abuses and corruption, has been strongly criticized by countries including the US.
At first, both sides insisted they had the votes to triumph in a parliamentary vote on the appointment of Rajapaksa, but Sirisena later dissolved parliament entirely after his party conceded they lacked the numbers.
“Sri Lanka’s problem is not the prime minister-ship. Let us not deprive the people their right to show their franchise," Rajapaksa said on Thursday.