Former Sri Lankan president Mahinda Rajapaksa was sworn in as the country’s prime minister on Friday night by president Maithripala Sirisena, who currently heads the former’s party the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP). The incumbent prime minister Ranil Wickremesinghe of the United National Party (UNP) called the move unconstitutional and said he would continue in the position.
Experts pointed out that the constitutional validity of the move was in doubt as following the 19th Amendment passed in 2015, the president does not have the right to dismiss the prime minister except under very specific criteria, none of which have been met in this case.
Sirisena was a minister in Rajapaksa’s cabinet till he challenged the latter and defeated him in the landmark presidential elections of January 2015. Rajapaksa was president of Sri Lanka for nearly 10 years. His rule saw the brutal suppression of the armed group, the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), massive human rights violations against the Tamil community, a huge rise in Sinhala ethnic chauvinism and a crackdown on media. He was also accused of corruption and nepotism.
Wickremesinghe became the prime minister after the parliamentary elections of August 2015. The UNP and the Sirisena wing of the SLFP joined hands along with other smaller parties to form the government. Prior to Friday’s developments, Sirisena’s SLFP-led United People’s Freedom Alliance had announced that it would withdraw from the government headed by Wickremesinghe. Neither the new Sirisena-Rajapaksa combine or Wickremesinghe’s UNP have a majority in parliament. In February 2018, a party backed by Rajapaksa had achieved major gains in local body polls.
In the aftermath of the 2015 elections, Sirisena and Wickremesinghe had promised to bring relief to the Tamil community, whose rights remained severely curtailed despite the war having long ended. They had also promised major constitutional reform, including the abolition of the executive presidency, as well as further devolution of power to the provinces. While some steps were taken to ease the plight of the Tamils, and the 19th Amendment was passed, which reduced the power of the president, progress on significant reform has been slow. Attempts at prosecuting members of the Rajapaksa government and military officials who were responsible for war crimes during the conflict with the LTTE have also slowed down considerable. Among the reasons cited for these developments are the clashes between Sirisena and Wickremesinghe over some of these issues. The pressure exerted by Buddhist chauvinist groups is believed to be another reason for the slowing down of the reform process.