‘Anti-democratic coup’: Sri Lanka in turmoil as PM Wickremesinghe is sacked and rival Rajapaksa sworn in
- Ranil Wickremesinghe denounced his surprise dismissal as an illegal move by President Maithripala Sirisena
- Ex-president Mahinda Rajapaksa’s appointment came after months of rising tensions between Sirisena and Wickremesinghe
Former Sri Lankan president Mahinda Rajapaksa was sworn in as prime minister on Friday, after President Maithripala Sirisena sacked incumbent Ranil Wickremesinghe in a surprise move that caps months of political turmoil in the Indian Ocean nation.
The appointment was confirmed in a statement from the president’s office, but Wickremesinghe later told local television he remained the prime minister.
“I retain the confidence of the house. I am the prime minister and I have the majority,” Wickremesinghe said. “According to the constitution I’m the prime minister. That is not legal.”
Local television pictures had shown Rajapaksa, who last month led opposition protests against the government, being sworn in before Sirisena, surrounded by a number of opposition legislators.
Underlining the risk of chaos in Sri Lanka, where the government had been under pressure over a misfiring economy, Media and Finance Minister Mangala Samaraweera said on Twitter that the appointment of Rajapaksa as prime minister was a violation of the constitution, which was amended in 2015 to curtail the executive powers of the president.
“This is an anti-democratic coup,” Samaraweera tweeted.
The surprise move comes after disagreements between Sirisena and Wickremesinghe over economic policy and day-to-day administration of the government.
Sirisensa’s United People’s Freedom Alliance (UPFA) had said it would quit the ruling coalition, capping months of rising tensions between the president’s bloc and Wickremesinghe’s centre-right United National Party (UNP).
The pair were reported to have clashed in cabinet last week over government plans to lease a port terminal to neighbouring India.
The ruling coalition had been further strained in recent days by strong criticism from Sirisena and his allies that ministers from Wickremesinghe’s party did not act properly in investigating an alleged assassination plot to kill the president and former defence secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa, the new prime minister’s younger brother.
Wickremesinghe’s government came to power promising economic reforms and accountability for atrocities committed in Sri Lanka’s bloody civil war during Rajapaksa’s presidency.
Wickremesinghe had survived a no-confidence motion in Parliament in April which was brought by supporters of Rajapaksa, the country’s former strongman president.
The main allegation against Wickremesinghe involved his appointment of a Singaporean as the central bank governor who is now accused of leaking inside information to benefit his son-in-law in a treasury bond sale.
Rajapaksa was defeated in the 2015 presidential election after Sirisena, who was his health minister, defected and joined Wickremesinghe in an election alliance.
After being elected president as a neutral candidate, Sirisena accepted an offer from Rajapaksa to take over his Sri Lanka Freedom Party. Since then, party rivalries have been simmering within the government.
With additional reporting by Agence France-Presse and Associated Press