Wednesday, 17 Jul 2024

Sri Lanka’s President Finally Checked: Court Rules to Bring Back Parliament

COLOMBO, Sri Lanka — Sri Lanka’s Supreme Court on Tuesday blocked the president from dissolving Parliament, raising the possibility that the former prime minister could reclaim the post after weeks of unnerving political drama.

Sri Lanka has been in crisis since late last month, when President Maithripala Sirisena abruptly fired Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe, accusing him of being inept and corrupt. He then swore in a new prime minister: Mahinda Rajapaksa, a popular former president who has been accused of human rights abuses. Many lawmakers and government ministers denounced the move. Protests erupted, and at least one person was killed.

Insisting his firing was unconstitutional, Mr. Wickremesinghe refused to leave his official residence and demanded that Parliament be summoned to prove he still had support.

Instead, Mr. Sirisena dissolved Parliament and called for new elections. Opponents said he had done so because Mr. Rajapaksa could not assemble a majority. The maneuverings were seen as a back door way to bring Mr. Rajapaksa and his allies back into power.

Mr. Sirisena saw his power checked for the first time when the court issued its interim order on Tuesday. Parliament is now set to reconvene on Wednesday, and most analysts believe that Mr. Wickremesinghe has the support of a majority of lawmakers and could be reinstated as prime minister.

Mr. Wickremesinghe is not especially popular; his government has been roundly criticized for getting little done. But many Sri Lankans have been upset about the way he was pushed out.

“This is probably the most important order the Supreme Court has delivered in its history,” said Abraham Sumanthiran, a lawmaker and senior lawyer who had challenged the dissolution of Parliament.

Some of Mr. Sirisena’s critics said that the president had strayed so far from the law that his decision to dissolve Parliament could signal the end of constitutional rule in Sri Lanka.

The court’s order is not final, but the judges indicated that there was enough merit to block the president’s actions. More hearings are scheduled for December.

As soon as the decision was announced on Tuesday, celebrations erupted outside the Supreme Court in central Colombo, the capital. Supporters of Mr. Wickremesinghe chanted “down with the fake Prime Minister!” as soldiers and police officers in riot gear stood by.

The court, which heard more than 10 different petitions against the president’s actions, also blocked the president’s plan to call snap elections for January. Elections were not expected before 2020, unless a super majority in Parliament called for them.

Neither Mr. Sirisena nor Mr. Rajapaksa responded immediately to the court ruling. Mr. Sirisena still has the power to suspend the Parliament and delay its next meeting.

Namal Rajapaksa, the former president’s son who is a member of Parliament, said on Twitter that he had “never seen politicians get so excited” about postponing elections.

Nimal Siripala De Silva, Mr. Rajapaksa’s transport minister, told reporters late Tuesday that the administration would demand a larger bench of the Supreme Court hear the cases, since it was an “important constitutional matter.” The Supreme Court has nine judges; three were on the panel that made the ruling issued Tuesday.

No major foreign country, including the United States, has recognized Mr. Sirisena’s new government. Diplomats have been pushing Mr. Sirisena and Mr. Rajapaksa to allow the Parliament to choose its own leader.

An island nation off the coast of India, Sri Lanka recently ended a decades-long civil war. Mr. Rajapaksa has been accused by human rights investigators of committing war crimes during his presidency, when army commanders shelled areas where thousands of civilians were seeking refuge. Many were killed.

In recent years, the country has also fallen deeply in debt to China; it was forced to turn over control of an important port to China.

Its close ties to China have alarmed both the United States and India, which fear China’s growing presence in the region.

Dharisha Bastians reported from Colombo, and Jeffrey Gettleman from New Delhi.

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