A woman walks past a newspaper stall as papers carry the news of the Sri Lanka's parliament being dissolved, on a main road in Colombo, Sri Lanka Nov. 10, 2018. (Dinuka Liyanawatte/Reuters)

Sri Lanka plunged deeper into political crisis after the president issued a decree late Friday to dissolve Parliament and hold fresh elections, a move that experts called unconstitutional and opponents vowed to challenge in court.

The step marks the latest development in a showdown between Maithripala Sirisena, Sri Lanka’s president, and Ranil Wickremesinghe, the country’s sitting prime minister — a confrontation with profound implications for the future of Sri Lankan democracy.

Sirisena’s decision to dissolve Parliament “poses a vital threat to Sri Lanka’s democratic institutions,” the U.S. Embassy said in a statement released Saturday. Such actions “jeopardize Sri Lanka’s economic progress and international reputation.”

Sirisena and Wickremesinghe represent different parties but had governed the island nation off the coast of India as part of a coalition government. Their partnership collapsed in spectacular fashion when Sirisena dismissed Wickremesinghe from his post on Oct. 26, a step that experts say violated Sri Lanka’s constitution.

Sirisena named as the new prime minister Mahinda Rajapaksa, a controversial former president and strongman accused of using brutal force to end the country’s 25-year-long civil war in 2009.

Those moves have heightened tensions and brought the threat of violence as two men claim to be Sri Lanka’s rightful prime minister. Wickremesinghe has remained in the official prime ministerial residence, surrounded by supporters, while Rajapaksa has installed loyalists as new cabinet ministers.

The United States and Europe have expressed grave concerns at the Sri Lankan president’s maneuvers and had called for a swift vote in Parliament to demonstrate which of the two men claiming to be prime minister controls a majority in the chamber. 

But Sirisena suspended the chamber and had refused to reconvene it until Wednesday — a move designed to give his ally Rajapaksa time to pull together votes.

On Friday, however, a presidential spokesman admitted that its faction was still short of the backing it needed. Hours later, at midnight, Sirisena issued a presidential gazette dissolving Parliament and calling for snap elections in January. 

“This is an illegal act. There is no provision within the constitution for the president to dissolve Parliament this way,” Ajith Perera, a member of Wickremesinghe’s United National Party (UNP) said on Saturday. 

Under Sri Lanka’s constitution, Parliament can be dissolved only under two conditions: when at least 4½ years have passed since the most recent election, or when two-thirds of the members assent. Neither condition has been met.

Members of Wickremesinghe’s party held emergency meetings Saturday to plot next steps. They also met with the country’s Election Commission and urged it to follow the law. The Election Commission had yet to announce whether it will call for fresh polls.

Two UNP leaders, Kabir Hashim and Mangala Samaraweera, said they intended to file a case in the Supreme Court to challenge the dissolution.

Bhavani Fonseka, a lawyer and senior researcher at the Center for Policy Alternatives, a think tank in Colombo, said that organization also planned to challenge the presidential decree. Under the Sri Lankan constitution, she said, “it is very clear that no one individual can dissolve Parliament.”

In the weeks since the president’s move to dismiss the prime minister, opposition to his unprecedented tactics has grown. On Monday, Karu Jayasuriya, the speaker of Parliament, said that recent events were a “severe violation of democratic principles” that “should not have occurred in a democratic society.”

Sirisena has said the dismissal of Wickremesinghe was necessary to protect the national interest. In a televised address, Sirisena accused Wickremesinghe of corruption and of mishandling the investigation into an alleged assassination plot against him.

Analysts say that Sirisena’s move was motivated not only by acrimony toward Wickremesinghe but also by political calculations. Sirisena and Rajapaksa are former rivals, but Rajapaksa’s party emerged as the clear winner in recent local elections — making it a powerful partner for future polls.

Rajapaksa remains a popular figure in Sri Lanka for his role in ending the civil war. But the prospect of him returning to a leadership role in the country is a bleak one for human rights activists and many Tamils in the country’s north. Critics accuse him of human rights violations and of using intimidation to silence opponents. Rajapaksa also enabled the expansion of Chinese influence in Sri Lanka in the form of major infrastructure projects.

Slater reported from Jaipur, India.