Sri Lanka’s disputed prime minister takes his fight to the Supreme Court

Posted at 1:31 AM, Dec 04, 2018
and last updated 2018-12-04 03:31:32-05

Sri Lanka’s prime minister is appealing a court decision that temporarily bars him and his cabinet from carrying out official duties, amid a constitutional crisis that has left the island nation without effective leadership.

The ruling by Sri Lanka’s Court of Appeals on Monday comes after Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa refused to step down despite losing two no-confidence votes last month.

Rajapaksa said he will take his appeal to the Supreme Court on Tuesday and seek an order halting the decision. “We do not agree with the decision given by the Appeals Court as Constitutional matters are finally decided by the Supreme Court,” Rajapaksa said on Twitter.

Judge Arjuna Obeyesekere said in his ruling that if Rajapaksa and his cabinet continued to hold office, it would cause “irreparable” damage. “Such damage would also have far reaching consequences to the whole country,” Obeyesekere said.

Even though the decision would leave the nation without a functioning government, “allowing a set of persons who are not entitled in law to function as the prime minister or the cabinet of ministers or any other minister of government,” would do far greater harm, he added.

The ruling restrains Rajapaksa and his 48 ministers from holding office until the court has heard a petition by 122 lawmakers that challenges his claim to power. Rajapaksa and the cabinet members have until December 12 to prove to the court that they have authority to govern.

Constitutional Crisis and counter cases

Sri Lanka has been in crisis since October 26 when President Maithripala Sirisena ousted Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe and appointed Rajapaksa — a two-time former President — to take his place. Sirisena then dissolved parliament and called for snap elections for January 5, a move that was temporarily halted by the country’s Supreme Court.

The president and Rajapaksa have refused to recognize two separate motions of no confidence voted by parliament on November 14 and 16.

Parliament is expected to debate another motion of no confidence against Rajapaksa on Wednesday. The motion, which requires the support of 113 out of 225 lawmakers, has been signed by seven members of ousted prime minister Wickremesinghe’s United National Front (UNF). The Tamil National Alliance has also declared its 14 lawmakers will support the UNF.

The Supreme Court is now set to begin hearings on the legality of Sirisena’s actions, with judges due to meet Tuesday. Sirisena told a UNF delegation on Friday that he would accept parliament’s decision but insisted that he would not appoint Wickremesinghe as prime minister.

The political crisis is leaking into the financial markets. On Monday, Fitch Ratings downgraded Sri Lanka to ‘B’ from ‘B+’, saying in a report that the “ongoing political upheaval, which has disrupted the normal functioning of parliament, exacerbates the country’s external financing risks.”

There are also concerns for more violence if the impasse continues. An early flashpoint of the crisis came a day after the dissolution of parliament when the bodyguards of a deposed government minister opened fire on a crowd of protestors, killing one and injuring three others. The shooting occurred as crowds loyal to the President Sirisena attempted to prevent the recently deposed petroleum minister Arjuna Ranatunga, a former Sri Lankan cricket captain, from entering a government building in the capital, Colombo.