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Sri Lanka’s prime minister reinstated, ending political crisis

Sri Lankan President Maithreepala Sirisena, right, hands over official documents on Sunday as reappoints Ranil Wickremesinghe as prime minister.
Sri Lankan President Maithreepala Sirisena, right, hands over official documents on Sunday as reappoints Ranil Wickremesinghe as prime minister. (President Media Division/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock)
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NEW DELHI — A crisis that threatened to derail Sri Lanka’s democracy ended Sunday when the country’s prime minister was reinstated by the president who ousted him from office seven weeks earlier.

It was a remarkable conclusion to a struggle that began with a power grab by Maithripala Sirisena, the country’s president. He dismissed Ranil Wickremesinghe, the sitting prime minister, and replaced him with Mahinda Rajapaksa, a controversial former strongman. When a majority of lawmakers refused to back the move, Sirisena tried to dissolve parliament.

An island nation still recovering from a brutal civil war that ended in 2009, Sri Lanka prides itself on being one of Asia’s oldest democracies. The past seven weeks have posed a crucial test for its institutions, which have proven more resilient than many experts expected.

Lawmakers and courts mounted sustained opposition to Sirisena’s move to fire Wickremesinghe and replace him with Rajapaksa.

Members of parliament voted twice to reinstate Wickremesinghe, while Sri Lanka’s Supreme Court ruled Thursday that Sirisena’s attempt to dissolve parliament was unconstitutional.

On Sunday, Wickremesinghe was once again sworn in as prime minister by Sirisena, the very man who ejected him from office on Oct. 26. The two men represent different parties but had governed Sri Lanka as part of an increasingly fractious coalition.

Their relationship is one of undisguised hostility, and few believe that they will govern Sri Lanka together for long. Hours after retaking the oath of office, Wickremesinghe told leaders of his United National Party to prepare for polls in 2019.

“Today marks a victory not for myself or for the UNP,” Wickremesinghe wrote on Twitter on Sunday. “It is a victory for Sri Lanka’s democratic institutions and the sovereignty of our citizens. I thank everyone who stood firm in defending the constitution.”

Wickremesinghe’s reinstatement ended a surreal situation in which two men claimed to be the country’s rightful prime minister. Wickremesinghe refused to vacate the official prime ministerial residence and remained there surrounded by supporters for the duration of the crisis.

One person was killed in the early days of the stalemate when a government minister’s bodyguard fired on protesters blocking him from entering the state petroleum company. Lawmakers also twice came to blows in parliament. But the fear that the struggle could turn more violent did not materialize.

Meanwhile, Rajapaksa selected a cabinet of ministers and began conducting government business even as his grip on power became legally tenuous. Earlier this month, an appeals court in Colombo, Sri Lanka’s capital, restrained Rajapaksa and his cabinet from functioning. With no budget in place, the government faced the possibility that it would have no money as of Jan. 1.

Rajapaksa is a Sinhalese nationalist who is popular among Sri Lankans for ending the civil war against the separatist Tamil Tigers. He oversaw a final offensive in which as many as 40,000 civilians were killed, according to a United Nations panel that urged a probe into possible war crimes by the Sri Lankan government and the Tamil Tigers.

Rajapaksa’s allies have suggested Western countries — which had expressed alarm at the crisis — were propping up Wickremesinghe. Rajapaksa’s son Namal, who is also a member of parliament, offered a barbed congratulatory message to Wickremesinghe on Twitter on Sunday: “I hope at least now he will work towards ensuring the sovereignty of this country and more so address issues of our people more than Western interests.”

Sirisena said Sunday that he believed fresh parliamentary elections remained the way forward. Under Sri Lanka’s constitution, parliament can only be dissolved and move to elections if two-thirds of the body assents, or if 4½ years have passed since the last election. The latter condition will be met in early 2020.

“History will remember those who held the line during this time,” said a recent editorial in the Daily Financial Times, a Sri Lankan newspaper, saluting the Supreme Court, the speaker of parliament, key lawmakers and the Sri Lankan public for their roles in upholding the constitution.

But at the same time, the paper also noted Wickremesinghe had failed to deliver on key promises, including pushing forward corruption investigations and post-civil war reconciliation measures. Wickremesinghe and his party have “a profound responsibility to move past business as usual and work to fulfill the people’s expectations.”

Other experts cautioned that a high degree of uncertainty will prevail in the near term. “The last 50 days have shown that the president and his [inner] circle are willing to completely undermine the constitution, so anything is possible,” said Bhavani Fonseka, a senior researcher at the Center for Policy Alternatives, a think tank in Colombo. “There is no real stability right now.”

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Today’s coverage from Post correspondents around the world

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