NEW DELHI — Sri Lanka is entering the most perilous and uncertain phase of its sudden political crisis as the struggle to demonstrate who is the nation’s legitimate prime minister moves from the halls of government to the streets.
Parliament, the normal place to resolve their competing claims, has been suspended at the direction of the president, Maithripala Sirisena, until the middle of next month. So now what?
Experts say a few scenarios are emerging — and that the coming days will involve an exercise in sheer political muscle.
The outcome will determine the future course of democracy in Sri Lanka, a country still struggling with the legacy of its 25-year civil war that ended in 2009.
The United States and the European Union have called upon Sri Lanka’s president to swiftly reconvene Parliament to resolve the crisis, but there is no sign that he will do so.
Now Wickremesinghe and his supporters are trying to generate pressure on the president to compel him to reopen Parliament, where they say they hold a majority of votes.
Meanwhile, Rajapaksa — himself a former president — is moving to consolidate his grip on the levers of power while working to assemble a majority of his own. Behind the scenes, both men are engaged in furious horse-trading with members of Parliament to secure the necessary votes.
The end result is anything but clear, and the worry is that the escalating tensions could spill over into violence. On Sunday, the bodyguard of one of Wickremesinghe’s ministers fired on a group of Rajapaksa supporters who were blocking the entrance to a state petroleum company. One person was killed, and two were injured.
On Tuesday, 20,000 supporters of Wickremesinghe’s United National Party staged a large and peaceful protest in the capital, Colombo, against what they have called an unconstitutional coup to remove Wickremesinghe from his post. Under the nation’s constitution, Sri Lanka’s president does not have the ability to replace the prime minister at will.
“We will not give up the fight until democracy is restored,” Wickremesinghe told the crowds, who thronged the roads just behind the official residence of the prime minister.
For Wickremesinghe and his supporters, “basically the only lever they have is people power,” said Paikiasothy Saravanamuttu, executive director of the Centre for Policy Alternatives, a think tank in Colombo. “They need a show of strength in the streets.” But Rajapaksa and his supporters will probably counter with demonstrations of their own, Saravanamuttu said. “This is when things could get a bit rough.”
Rajapaksa is known for his ruthless offensive against the Tamil Tigers, which ended the country’s civil war in 2009. During his term as president, he was accused of using violence to silence his critics and of engaging in corruption. He also opened the door to increased Chinese influence in Sri Lanka in the form of major infrastructure projects.
Wickremesinghe, meanwhile, governed as prime minister as part of an unhappy coalition government forged in 2015 with Sirisena, the president. The coalition finally collapsed Friday after months of acrimony between the two men, who lead different parties. In the meantime, the country’s economy has struggled, and voter dissatisfaction has increased.
The crisis is uncharted territory for Sri Lanka, said Alan Keenan, project director for Sri Lanka at the International Crisis Group. For all of its warts, the country’s democratic system has never had a leader assume power through extra-constitutional means — something Rajapaksa is poised to do. “This marks a watershed, if it’s allowed to stand,” Keenan said.
Keenan outlined three potential scenarios:
- A combination of domestic and international pressure obliges the president to reconvene Parliament in short order.
- Parliament stays suspended, giving Rajapaksa the time to consolidate the support he needs in the chamber.
- The two competing factions reach some kind of “face-saving deal,” which might involve early elections.
“The longer this goes on, the more attrition favors Rajapaksa,” Keenan said.
If Rajapaksa does manage to become the next prime minister, it will represent a “kind of back to the future” for Sri Lanka — and not in a good way, Saravanamuttu said. “This is authoritarian populism back in the saddle again.”