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Sri Lanka's crisis deepens as parliamentary speaker cries 'coup'

Sirisena faces test in poll after weeks of rule by presidential fiat

Security officers try to control a crowd pushing toward the main stage during a rally by Sri Lanka's newly appointed Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa and President Maithripala Sirisena, in Colombo on Nov. 5.    © Reuters

BANGKOK -- As Sri Lanka's political crisis enters its third week, fears of a violent showdown between the executive and the legislature are gaining ground, as the speaker of the parliament accused the president of staging a "constitutional coup." The confusion in the island nation is setting the stage for an unprecedented clash that will further destabilize the strategically located Indian Ocean nation.

The political fault line has widened in the wake of President Maithripala Sirisena sticking to his guns to rule the country by presidential fiat since Oct. 26, when he fired incumbent Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe and shut the doors of parliament to prevent lawmakers from determining through a vote if his new administration enjoys a majority in the 225-member parliament.

The speaker of the parliament added his voice this week to a growing number of Sri Lankan constitutional scholars who say that Sirisena exceeded his authority and staged a "constitutional coup." Karu Jayasuriya, a political veteran and a moderate from Wickremesinghe's party, told Colombo-based diplomats in a Nov. 5 letter that "the entire series of events can only be described as a coup, albeit one without the use of tanks and guns."

Sirisena's allies say he did not violate the charter. They defend his decision to end the coalition government he had formed with Wickremesignhe based on the constitutional provisions of the country's presidential system, which enables the executive to wield wide powers. But they are turning a blind eye to an amendment that curtailed such presidential authority.

Likewise, his allies are sidestepping the contentious issue of the parliamentary legitimacy of Sirisena's chosen successor to Wickremesinghe. 

Sirisena's authority will be tested on Nov. 14, when he summons lawmakers to a fresh sitting of the parliament and to formally present his new administration, headed by Mahinda Rajapaksa, a popular former president whose terms were marked by his authoritarian governance and his tilt towards China.

Sirisena has still not budged, however, on the need for a vote in the legislature to test if his political camp enjoys the parliamentary majority of 113 lawmakers he needs even after intense horse-trading, where some parliamentarians have reportedly been bribed millions of rupees to cross over to Sirisena's bloc.

The political deadlock extends the lack of international legitimacy of Sirisena's two-week-old government on the world stage. Consequently, Colombo-based diplomats have been drawn into the fray, since many governments have held back from endorsing Sirisena's new administration. Envoys from Western and Asian countries have continued to engage with Wickremesinghe -- an unprecedented situation of the country having two prime ministers competing for authority.

Nilanthi Samaranayake, a South Asian affairs analyst at the Center for Naval Analyses, a Washington, D.C.-based think tank, questions Sirisena's blunder in deposing Wickremesinghe, whose party has the largest number of seats in parliament, and then sidestepping the legislature to gain legitimacy for his successor.

"It's hard to imagine President Sirisena did not foresee the international reaction to his decision," she told Nikkei. "The international community is now watching and waiting to see what will happen next, especially when parliament reconvenes."

The rising political temperature comes as India appears to have secured an edge over China's expanding economic presence in its backyard. In mid-November, the Maldives, an archipelago southwest of Sri Lanka, will see a more pro-Indian president begin his term in office after the shock defeat in late September of a pro-China incumbent.

Seasoned analysts say that places Sri Lanka as the only remaining country in an increasingly contested corner of the Indian Ocean where both India and China enjoy an equal foothold. "If we do not manage our latest domestic disputes, we will be vulnerable to more international pressure because of our strategic location," a veteran Sri Lankan diplomat told the Nikkei Asian Review.

It is a regretful turn of events, a Colombo-based Western diplomat observed, since Sirisena's actions threaten to end Sri Lanka's impressive record of being Asia's oldest democracy, where power has been transferred peacefully over 70 years via voting.

The instability is pushing Sri Lanka to become like South Asian countries such as Pakistan, Bangladesh and Maldives, where political feuds have been resolved through extra-constitutional measures, he said. 

Sirisena is extracting a heavy price from Sri Lanka's struggling, frontier market economy because of the legitimacy deficit. It comes as the country was awaiting another tranche from the International Monetary Fund's $1.5 billion bailout to help the country stave off a balance of payment crisis. In 2019, furthermore, Sri Lanka will have to start paying back $17 billion in maturing foreign loans and debt servicing until 2023. 

Financial analysts in Colombo expect international borrowing costs for the $87 billion economy, which has $8.5 billion in foreign reserves, to increase. They expect the loan pipeline for future borrowings "may dry up," and foreign investors to stay away out of fear that "there is no rule of law to protect their assets." Said one analyst: "Business confidence, which was very low, has worsened."

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