World News

Another Twist in Sri Lanka: Parliament Votes Out Rajapaksa

Posted November 14, 2018 7:38 a.m. EST

COLOMBO, Sri Lanka — A majority of Sri Lankan lawmakers voted Wednesday morning to remove Mahinda Rajapaksa as prime minister, saying that his appointment last month was illegal.

Rajapaksa is considered the strongman of Sri Lankan politics, a wealthy, powerful former president who has been accused of grave human rights abuses. The country has been tied in knots since late last month when President Maithripala Sirisena abruptly fired the previous prime minister, Ranil Wickremesinghe, and appointed Rajapaksa to the post.

It was a rambunctious, unruly few hours in Parliament this morning.

Lawmakers allied with Wickremesinghe walked into the chamber wearing black sashes that read “For democracy.'’ The gallery was packed with journalists, diplomats and everyday citizens. Lawmakers allied with Rajapaksa did whatever they could to block a vote of no confidence. Some yelled, while others tried to grab the ceremonial mace, the parliamentary symbol of power. Some even called the speaker of Parliament a “mad fool.”

But a majority of lawmakers were determined to hold the vote. Rajapaksa then walked out. When the ayes were counted, 122 out of 225 said they wanted Rajapaksa gone.

“This is a historic day,” a triumphant Wickremesinghe said.

It is unclear what will happen next. Sri Lanka has a slightly unusual leadership structure in which executive powers are vested in both the president and the prime minister. Sirisena, the president, seems to have backed himself into a corner and miscalculated the intensity of the resistance to his appointment of Rajapaksa.

The prime minister he fired, Wickremesinghe, was definitely less popular than Rajapaksa before this crisis started. Many Sri Lankans saw Wickremesinghe as aloof and ineffective, numb to the economic troubles that have begun to pile up around them as this island nation slides deeper into debt, much of it to China.

Rajapaksa had seemed well entrenched as president until Sirisena defied the odds and beat him in the 2015 election, in part because of outrage over Rajapaksa’s deals with China. But the country’s economy has only gotten worse since then, and analysts say that had Rajapaksa simply waited and run again in 2020, he probably could have won.

Many Sri Lankans consider him a hero for bringing a decisive end to a decadeslong civil war in 2009, during his presidency. But human rights groups accuse him of employing brutal tactics that killed thousands of civilians.

It was the backdoor way in which Sirisena tried to bring Rajapaksa back into power that incensed so many Sri Lankans, including the majority of Parliament. Sirisena knew Parliament was against him and ordered it dissolved last week. On Tuesday, the Supreme Court stepped in, setting aside that decision and paving the way for Parliament to reconvene.

Now Sri Lanka is waiting to see what the president does next.

In an interview, Rajapaksa’s son Namal said that his father would not resign and insisted that the speaker of Parliament, Karu Jayasuriya, had acted out of order in conducting the vote.

“It was unethical,” he said.