Sirisena, Jayasuriya fail to break Sri Lanka deadlock

Colombo, Sri Lanka Sri Lanka‘s president and speaker of parliament failed to resolve a crisis over the abrupt sacking of the country’s prime minister amid fears opposing parties may turn to violence and bribery to break the deadlock.

Speaker Karu Jayasuriya held emergency talks with President Maithripala Sirisena on Wednesday, urging him to recall parliament and let legislators choose between the two men claiming to be the country’s lawful prime minister, according to Chaminda Gamage, a spokesman for the speaker.

But the hour-long meeting in Sri Lanka’s capital, Colombo, ended without a resolution, said Chaminda.

“Sirisena said he will consider the speaker’s request and get back to him soon,” he said.

Sri Lanka has been gripped by constitutional chaos since Friday after Sirisena fired Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe, suspended parliament, and appointed a controversial leader he had defeated in elections in 2015 to the prime minister’s post.

The surprise moves, which critics denounced as a “coup”, drew tens of thousands of protesters to the streets of Colombo on Tuesday.

A source close to the president, who was present at Wednesday’s meeting at Sirisena’s official residence, told Al Jazeera while Sirisena was “polite”, he remained “indifferent” to Jayasuriya’s pleas.

He responded to the speaker’s request to resume parliament by asking him to recognise newly appointed Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa, the official said. 

Jayasuriya, a member of the sacked prime minister’s United National Party (UNP), previously insisted the decision must be left to the 225-member House. Legal experts argue while a president can appoint a prime minister, he does not have the authority to sack one. 

Talks between the president and the speaker were held hours after the independent attorney-general declined to comment on the legality of Sirisena’s actions.

Thousands rally in Colombo in support of sacked Sri Lanka PM

In a letter responding to the speaker’s request for his legal opinion, Jayantha Jayasuriya, the government’s top legal advisor, said commenting on the matter would be “inappropriate”. 

‘Corruption of the people’s mandate’

Despite the dispute over the legality of his appointment, the newly appointed prime minister continued to consolidate power. On Wednesday, Rajapaksa assumed the finance minister’s duties and officials said he was expected to begin work on the state budget for 2018 soon. 

Wickremesinghe, meanwhile, remained holed up in the prime minister’s official residence at Temple Trees, where Buddhist monks have been reciting prayers throughout the day. 

The ousted prime minister, whose popularity is declining amid widespread anger over costs of living, insisted he commanded majority support in the House, and members of his UNP accuse Sirisena of suspending parliament in a bid to shore up support for Rajapaksa’s appointment.

All eyes are now on the South Asian country’s legislators.

Transparency International Sri Lanka, an anti-corruption group, warned the suspension of parliament “has created a climate that is ripe for political horse-trading leading to the corruption of the people’s mandate”.

Asoka Obeysekere, the group’s executive director, told Al Jazeera “closing the doors of parliament to enable deal-making has already led to allegations of monetary inducements for loyalty”.

At least five UNP legislators have defected to Sirisena’s United People’s Freedom Alliance (UPFA). They were offered posts in the newly appointed cabinet.

One legislator, Dunesh Gankanda, was sworn in as state minister for environment on Tuesday just hours after posting a photo on Facebook praising protesters for “turning up to defeat the evil Sirisena-Rajapaksa gang”. 

The defections prompted one UNP politician to accuse China of spending “millions to buy” legislators in Sri Lanka. Beijing, which backed Rajapaksa during the former president’s 10-year rule, has dismissed Ranjan Ramanayake’s claim as “groundless and irresponsible”.

Despite the cross-overs, it was unclear if Rajapaksa has the 113 votes he requires. Prior to the crisis, the UNP had the backing of 106 parliamentarians, and the UPFA had 96.

The Tamil National Alliance (TNA), which has 16 seats in the house, and the People’s Liberation Front (JVP), with six legislators, have urged Jayasuriya to intervene and reconvene the House.

Targeted sanctions

Alan Keenan, researcher at the International Crisis Group (ICG), said TNA support for Rajapaksa, who is credited with ending the country’s 26-year war against Tamil separatists in 2009, was not guaranteed because of the way his government and military treated members of the ethnic minority during his decade-long rule from 2005 to 2015.

Sri Lanka’s Rajapaksa assumes duties as PM

The JVP, meanwhile, was likely to abstain because of anger at both candidates, he said.

ICG, in a statement on Wednesday, urged Western countries to urge Sirisena to select a prime minister through legal means.

Condemning what it called the country’s “first-ever illegal transfer of power”, ICG said Wickremesinghe’s ouster threatens instability in Sri Lanka, while the “struggle for power jeopardises progress on reforms, reconciliation, and prospects for peaceful and fair elections in 2019”.

Governments should consider suspending economic cooperation – including a US goverment plan to loan US$450m to Sri Lanka – and “begin to consider applying targeted sanctions against Sirisena, Rajapaksa, their families and their close associates should Sri Lanka’s constitutional coup proceed”, the statement said. 

The crisis, now in its sixth day, appears unlikely to end soon.

Sri Lankan daily Lankadeepa, in a report late on Wednesday, said Sirisena – in a meeting with leaders of his party shortly before talks with Jayasuriya – vowed he would not allow Wickremesinghe to remain as prime minister.

A member of the president’s party confirmed Sirisena‘s comments to Al Jazeera.

‘No choice but Rajapaksa’

Many Sri Lankans in Colombo say they expect Rajapaksa to come out on top the longer the crisis drags on.

“He is a charismatic man, he will bring legislators to his side,” said Jeewaka Perera, a 49-year-old taxi driver.

The father of three said he voted against Rajapaksa in the 2015 elections because of corruption, but the “unity government” of Sirisena and Wickremesinghe have failed to deliver on promises of economic reform. 

“Ranil Wickremesinghe hasn’t done anything for the people in the last three years,” he said, expressing frustration over high fuel costs and taxes. “He has failed.”

“I think what Sirisena has done is wrong,” he said referring to Wickremesinghe’s ouster.

“But now there is no choice but Rajapaksa. The UNP can never be elected again.”  

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