Sri Lanka president short of votes in crisis campaign

Tamil parties reject Sirisena’s call to support Rajapaksa

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Sri Lankan politician Rajitha Senaratne, center, addresses a rally of supporters of deposed prime minister Ranil Wickremesinghe in the capital Colombo on Thursday to protest against the actions of President Maithripala Sirisena. — AFP

COLOMBO — Two weeks into a showdown between rival prime ministers, the Sri Lankan president’s party admitted for the first time on Friday that it does not have a majority to get its candidate through a parliamentary vote of confidence.

President Maithripala Sirisena named authoritarian former President Mahinda Rajapaksa as prime minister after sacking Ranil Wickremesinghe on Oct. 26.

Wickremesinghe has since refused to leave the premier’s official residence amid a deepening power struggle. The president also suspended parliament meaning neither of the rivals has been able to pass a vote of confidence.

United People’s Freedom Alliance (UPFA) spokesman Keheliya Rambukwella said Rajapaksa needs at least eight more votes in the 225 member assembly to reach the required 113 to win a vote.

“At the moment we have 104 or 105 MPs,” Rambukwella said. He said the Sirisena-Rajapaksa group needed “crossover” legislators and expressed hope enough would be secured by the time the assembly meets next week.

Rambukwella’s comments contradicted Sirisena’s announcement on Monday that he had the support of 113 legislators when he sacked Wickremesinghe and his government.

“Do not doubt the 113 MPs. We have completed getting 113 MPs,” Sirisena told a public rally. The Sirisena-Rajapaksa camp has insisted since the start of the dispute that it has enough parliament votes.

Wickremesinghe, who maintains that the action against him was unconstitutional and illegal, insists his group can muster a majority.

According to an AFP count, Wickremesinghe and his allies have 120 MPs while Rajapaksa and Sirisena have 104. The speaker, the 225th member, is neutral.

Meanwhile, Sri Lanka’s main Tamil parties have turned down a call from Sirisena to support Rajapaksa, the parties said on Friday.

Sirisena met the Tamil National Alliance (TNA) to persuade the main minority group to drop its opposition to Rajapaksa who led the country to a crushing defeat of Tamil separatist guerrillas when he was president, but who is accused of human rights violations.

“President asked the TNA to abstain from voting, but we said the abstention would lead to legitimizing an unconstitutional move,” M.A. Sumanthiran, a TNA spokesman, said.

Buddhists make up about 70 percent of Sri Lanka’s 21 million people and ethnic Tamils, most of whom are Hindus, about 13 percent. Muslims and other communities make up the rest.

Several legislators have said they were offered millions of dollars to defect and at least eight have jumped to Sirisena’s side.

Under pressure from the United Nations, United States and European Union states to allow a parliament vote, Sirisena agreed twice to lift the suspension, but changed his mind. His latest order calls for parliament to meet on Nov. 14.

The EU said Friday that the crisis had scarred the Indian Ocean island’s international reputation.

Amid rumors that Sirisena may seek to delay matters further, the EU, in a joint statement with Norway and Switzerland, said parliament should vote “immediately when reconvened”.

“Any further delay could damage Sri Lanka’s international reputation and deter investors,” the statement said.

Wickremesinghe late Thursday thanked his supporters and urged them not to give up in the showdown.

“In extraordinary numbers and with extraordinary courage you came out on to the streets, you spoke out,” Wickremesinghe said in a video message posted on Facebook.

“You have not let this country be plunged into the darkness of dictatorship. For this inspiring effort, I want to thank everyone who has risen to fight for democracy and justice,” he said.

His supporters staged a noisy cavalcade of motorcycles, auto-rickshaws, cars and vans in the capital Colombo on Thursday.

The power struggle on the island of 21 million people has paralyzed much of the administration, according to legislators on both sides of the dispute.

Sirisena has filled only 22 of 30 Cabinet positions — purposefully keeping some jobs vacant to tempt legislators of Wickremesinghe’s party to defect. — Agencies


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