Legal challenge as Sri Lankan political turmoil deepens

Sri Lanka's President Maithripala Sirisena on Friday dissolved parliament and called a snap election after failing to gain enough support for his nominee for prime minister, deepening the island's political crisis with a gamble deemed illegal by the ousted premier's party.

He said in a statement that a new parliament will be convened on January 17, after a general election is held on January 5.

The 72-year-old strongman, who ruled Lanka for a decade from 2005, was unexpectedly defeated by his deputy, Sirisena, in the presidential election held in January 2015 with the support from Wickremesinghe's United National Party (UNP).

President Sirisena suspended parliament immediately after his October 26 decision to sack Wickremesinghe, a move that was being seen as to allow Mahinda Rajapaksa to muster the 113 seats required for majority.

"At the moment we have 104 or 105 MPs", UPFA spokesman Keheliya Rambukwella told reporters, adding that the Sirisena-Rajapakse group hoped to secure support from "crossover" legislators.

Sirisena's supporters had been upset by Speaker Karu Jayasuriya's announcement that he was going to call for a vote for either party to prove their support.

Wickremesinghe, who has not left the Temple Trees residence since his sacking, maintains that the action against him was unconstitutional and illegal, and insists his group can muster a majority.

Mangala Samaraweera, the finance minister in Wickremesinghe's cabinet, said the president had "kicked the constitution in the teeth".

Minister Wijeyadasa Rajapakshe said that the President has the right to dissolve Parliament and he had acted within those legal rights.

He also called a general election for January 5. On November 2, the president lifted the suspension of Parliament and said Parliament would reconvene on November 14.

"This is a gross violation of the constitution", Harsha De Silva, a lawmaker in Wickremesinghe's party, told Reuters in reference to the dissolution of parliament.

Election Commission Chairman Mahinda Deshapriya yesterday denied web media reports, that he would wait for the Supreme Court's opinion on the legality of the dissolution of Parliament before proceeding with preparations for a General Election.

Rajapakse and the ousted Wickremesinghe have been battling for power for two weeks as worldwide concern grew over the mounting turmoil in the strategically important island nation.

Earlier, U.S. Rep. Eliot Engel, the top-ranking Democrat on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, and two other lawmakers wrote to Sirisena warning that actions circumventing the democratic process could impact U.S. assistance - including a planned five-year aid package from the Millennium Challenge Corporation worth hundreds of millions of dollars.

The party said in a Twitter message that it would meet the elections commissioner to discuss the constitutionality of Sirisena's move. Dinesh Gunawardena, a newly appointed urban development minister, said the president had handed the country back to the people.

  • Tracy Klein