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Dueling prime ministers and assassination plots: an escalating crisis in Sri Lanka

A constitutional crisis could spiral into violence.

Final Day Of Campaigning In Sri Lanka Ahead Of General Election 2015
Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe in 2015.
Buddhika Weerasinghe/Getty Images
Jen Kirby is a senior foreign and national security reporter at Vox, where she covers global instability.

Two prime ministers are claiming power in Sri Lanka in a political struggle that threatens to spiral into violence.

The saga began abruptly last week when the Sri Lankan president, Maithripala Sirisena, ousted current Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe and installed a replacement. His replacement, Mahinda Rajapaksa, is a former president who presided over the end of Sri Lanka’s bloody 25-year civil war and is accused of serious human rights abuses during his strongman-style rule from 2005 to 2015.

Sirisena says that he pulled off this dramatic prime minister switch because his life depended on it — literally. In a speech on Sunday, days after his political maneuver, Sirisena said that one of Wickremesinghe’s cabinet ministers had been plotting to assassinate him. So Sirisena argued he had no choice but to kick Wickremesinghe out and put someone else in his place.

What makes this situation even stranger is the on-again, off-again alliance between Sirisena and Rajapaksa, the replacement prime minister. Sirisena had been a member of Rajapaksa’s cabinet back when he was president, but broke with him ahead of the 2015 elections.

Now Sirisena has forged a political partnership with Rajapaksa once again, and brought him closer to power.

There’s a big problem: Wickremesinghe continues to claim that he is the rightful prime minister and that Sirisena’s move was unconstitutional. Wickremesinghe’s supporters and members of his United National Party (UNP) have gone so far as to call it an “undemocratic coup.”

Rajapaksa — who was sworn-in during a hasty ceremony over the weekend — claims he has popular support, and majority support in Parliament, which justifies his takeover.

A vote in Parliament could likely decide exactly which guy gets to be prime minister. But Sirisena suspended the body until November 16. Critics of Sirisena’s maneuvering say he’s delayed the reconvening of Parliament in an attempt to rally and strong-arm votes for Rajapaksa.

Now Sirisena has agreed to reconvene Parliament on Monday, November 5, according to Rajapaksa. This move may Sri Lanka back away from the precipice of a full-blown political catastrophe and ease fears of violence in a country that’s still healing from a decades-long civil war. But the crisis is still far from over yet.

A tale of 2 Sri Lankan prime ministers

Final Day Of Campaigning In Sri Lanka Ahead Of General Election 2015
Former Sri Lankan president Mahinda Rajapaksa.
Buddhika Weerasinghe/Getty Images

Rajapaksa served as the popular Sri Lankan president from 2005 to 2015. He is credited with finally resolving the country’s more than 25-year civil war with a separatist group known as the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, or the “Tamil Tigers” for short. The bloody ethnic conflict had been waging since the 1980s, with the largely Hindu minority Tamils seeking independence from the Buddhist Sinhalese majority.

But the tenuous peace Rajapaksa helped secure in 2009 came at a heavy cost. Rajapaksa has been accused of allowing war crimes and other human rights abuses under his watch, particularly during the final, brutal push to end the insurgency — including attacks on civilians and denial of humanitarian aid. Once Rajapaksa secured victory, he resisted international efforts, including by the United Nations, to investigate atrocities.

Rajapaksa has also been tied to the abduction and death of journalists during his tenure. Sirisena, a former minister in Rajapaksa’s cabinet, capitalized on this ahead of presidential elections in 2015, breaking with his former ally and joining the opposition against him.

Sirisena won in 2015, and his upset victory was seen as a promising sign for Sri Lankan democracy. Sirisena promised to crack down on corruption and implement government reforms. He also took a less hostile approach to the United Nations and accepted a resolution to investigate war crimes, part of a broader push for reconciliation in the post-civil war era.

Geopolitics also factored into their political rivalry. Rajapaksa sought closer economic and political relations with China, and when he was president he took loans from the Chinese for pet projects a maritime port and airport in the remote Hambantota area; the airport was dubbed “the world’s emptiest.” Sri Lanka now has serious debts to the Chinese.

The opposition, including Wickremesinghe, criticized these deals at the time, and sought to move closer to India.

Sirisena’s government, with Wickremesinghe as prime minister, hasn’t fulfilled its agenda since it took power in 2015, and the two have repeatedly clashed. Sirisena has been criticized for slow-moving economic and government reforms and stalling on promises of reconciliation. Sirisena’s deteriorating partnership with Wickremesinghe exacerbated this sense of political impasse.

Which means that Sirisena had a strong motive to want to replace Wickremesinghe.

An alleged assassination plot, an ousting, and politico limbo in Sri Lanka

The rumblings for Wickremesinghe’s ouster actually started earlier in October, when a report in the Indian newspaper The Hindu said that Sirisena had been accusing Indian intelligence of trying to murder him.

The Indian government denied the report, and assured Sirisena that it did not want to kill him. But apparently Sirisena did not let this idea go, and now he says one of Wickremesinghe’s cabinet ministers plotted to kill him, and has claimed Wickremesinghe failed to properly investigate.

“This information (received by investigators) contains a number of details hitherto hidden to the people,” Sirisena said on Sunday, two days after he decided to replace Wickremesinghe with Rajapaksa. “The informant has made a statement regarding a Cabinet minister involved in the conspiracy to assassinate me.”

The details of this alleged plot are still murky, as is Sirisena’s decision to kick out Wickremesinghe along with the prime minister’s cabinet officials last week over it. As Akhilesh Pillalamarri wrote in the Diplomat, Sri Lanka’s constitution “prevents the president from removing a prime minister unless they resigned or lost the confidence of parliament, neither of which has yet happened, according to Wickremesinghe.”

So Wickremesinghe says he’s still the prime minister. And his party is backing him — strongly, it turns out:

Rajapaksa was sworn in as prime minister on Sunday, though, and he claims he has the support in Parliament to back him up if it were put to a vote. Sirisena originally said he would not reconvene Parliament until November 16, which many saw as an attempt to wrest the votes for Rajapaksa.

But there’s a glimmer of hope that this crisis could be resolved more quickly. Sirisena met Tuesday with the speaker of Parliament, who’d urged the president to bring Parliament back into session to resolve the stalemate peacefully.

Then Rajapaksa, on Wednesday, announced that Sirisena had agreed to reconvene the Parliament as of Monday, November 5. Yet both men seem confident they have the votes.

“The people’s voices have been heard,” Wickremesinghe tweeted, about Sirisena’s decision to bring Parliament back into session.

Wickremesinghe added that “democracy will prevail.” But for now Sri Lanka’s democracy is stuck in limbo.

So what happens next?

Right now, Sri Lankan politics are basically in a holding pattern, though it’s a positive sign that Sirisena gave into pressure and agreed to reconvene Parliament on Monday.

Thousands of protesters have flocked to Sri Lanka’s capital, Colombo to demand that Sirisena call Parliament back into session and end this self-inflicted constitutional crisis.

The rallies have largely been peaceful, but violent clashes have broken out — most notably on Sunday, when one of the deposed ministers tried to reenter a government building and encountered supporters rallying for Rajapaksa. The pro-Rajapaksa crowd tried to block the minister from entering the building, and a bodyguard fired into the crowd, killing one person.

But the continued risk for violence is particularly acute in Sri Lanka, whose history is punctuated with ethnic conflict. Rajapaksa was president during the end of the country’s civil war, and experts worry that if Rajapaksa prevails in the power struggle, it could heighten ethnic tensions against Tamils and other minorities, as he’s been known to stoke Buddhist nationalism.

Protests will likely continue. Both Wickremesinghe and Rajapaksa have called on their supporters to rally on Monday, according to the Guardian.

Western governments, including the United States, have largely condemned Sirisena’s bizarre power swap. “We call on the President, in consultation with the Speaker, to immediately reconvene parliament and allow the democratically elected representatives of the Sri Lankan people to fulfill their responsibility to affirm who will lead their government,” Heather Nauert, a State Department spokesperson, said in a statement over the weekend.

Meanwhile, China seems just fine with finding an old ally suddenly back in power, and Beijing was quick to congratulate Rajapaksa. It’s a sign the region’s rivals, India and China, are closely watching the developments in Sri Lanka for their own geopolitical gain.

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