COLOMBO, Sri Lanka — Sri Lanka appeared on the brink of a constitutional crisis Saturday with two men each claiming to be the country’s rightful prime minister while the president suspended parliament until the middle of next month.
The showdown began late Friday, when the increasingly tenuous governing coalition collapsed. President Maithripala Sirisena replaced Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe after months of tension between the two men, who lead different parties.
Governments around the world and in the region are watching the developments closely, particularly India and China, which have engaged in a struggle for influence in the island nation. On Friday, the U.S. State Department called on “all parties to act in accordance with Sri Lanka’s constitution, refrain from violence, and follow due process.”
The split between Sirisena and Wickremesinghe marks the end of the national unity coalition that has governed Sri Lanka for the last three years.
Sirisena named as the new prime minister Mahinda Rajapaksa, a controversial former president who was in power for nearly a decade until 2015. During his tenure, Rajapaksa used brutal force to end the country’s long civil war and faced allegations of corruption and political violence.
Television channels showed Rajapaksa being sworn in as prime minister, but Wickremesinghe continued to occupy the official prime minister’s residence and refused to step down. Wickremesinghe called for a vote in parliament to test which party controlled the chamber.
“As far as the prime ministership is concerned, the person who has the majority support in parliament has to be the prime minister, and I have that majority of support,” Wickremesinghe said, according to the Associated Press. “It is not necessary for us to create a crisis. It is not necessary for the people of the country to suffer.”
But according to an official notice signed Saturday by the president’s secretary, the assembly is “prorogued” until Nov. 16 — a maneuver where the chamber is suspended for a period of time but not dissolved.
Wickremesinghe’s supporters have called the effort to remove him unconstitutional. “What happened was a political coup. The president had no right do this,” said Minister of Megapolis and Western Development Champika Ranawaka.
Harin Fernando, a member of parliament from Wickremesinghe’s United National Party who is also Minister of Telecommunications, said the party was planning to launch protests on Monday. “We are ready for anything, we are ready to take our battle to the streets,” Ranawaka said.
Allies of Rajapaksa, the newly appointed prime minister, said the episode was a prelude to fresh elections. Namal Rajapaksa, Mahinda Rajapaksa’s son and a fellow member of parliament, said his father does not intend to hold his new post for long.
His father’s discussions with the current president — once a bitter rival — had focused on setting up a stable caretaker government and then holding elections, Namal Rajapaksa said.
“The litmus test for any government, any party is elections. The Ranil Wickremesinghe government has been postponing them. Our high-level discussions with the president centered on first creating a stable government and then going for elections,” he said.
But holding fresh parliamentary elections is unlikely to be a straightforward task. It will require the dissolution of parliament, and according to the Sri Lankan Constitution, either two-thirds of the members must request such a step or four and half years must have elapsed since the last election.
Over the last six months, a wide gulf opened up between Sirisena and Wickremesinghe on a variety of issues. Political pundits believed the coalition was likely to crumble but not for several more months. The tensions between the two men peaked on Oct. 16 over the possible handover of a port development project to India: Wickremesinghe favored the move but Sirisena opposed it.
Ten days later, parliamentarians loyal to Sirisena officially withdrew their support from the government, triggering the appointment of Rajapaksa as the prime minister.
Slater reported from New Delhi.