Colombo on edge as Sri Lanka faces constitutional crisis

A returning populist's brazen takeover of the premiership has divided this south Asian island

Around the compound of the ousted PM Ranil Wickremesinghe in Clombo, Sri Lanka. Jack Moore / The National
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It is monsoon season in Colombo, Sri Lanka’s commercial capital, and dark clouds hang over the city. As the skies open, people dash for cover from the downpour amid flashes of thunder.

But it is a political storm that has the country on edge. A constitutional crisis has one of Asia’s oldest democracies teetering on the brink of the first extralegal transition of power in its history.

Two men currently claim the title of prime minister, with the ongoing power struggle bitterly dividing the country. Ranil Wickremesinghe, the incumbent premier whose position is under greater threat, is trying to resist a power grab and refuses to step aside.

Prime minister for three years underneath President Maithripala Sirisena, the 69-year-old had long endured a tumultuous relationship with his boss. Mr Sirisena supported a no-confidence vote in April that Mr Wickremesinghe survived and the two have fought over economic policy and ethnic reconciliation. Then on October 26, Mr Sirisena abruptly replaced him with Mahinda Rajapaksa, the egotistical populist whom Mr Sirisena had defeated in the 2015 election. Mr Rajapaksa had served for 10 years.

The previous bad blood between Messrs Sirsena and Rajapaksa is now apparently in the past. Ahead of his 2015 presidential election victory, Mr Sirisena pledged to investigate Mr Rajapaksa for his alleged role in crimes committed against the Tamil minority group in the final weeks of the 25-year-long civil war in 2009, and has also previously accused him of hatching an assassination plot against him. But he is now Mr Sirisena's choice for prime minister.

As Mr Rajapaksa, 72, has tried to assume power, the sidelined prime minister Mr Wickremesinghe has refused to budge, holing up in his Temple Trees residence – the official home of the prime minister – and calling for an immediate confidence vote.

Sri Lanka is a semi-presidential republic and the right of the president to remove a prime minister was withdrawn with a constitutional amendment passed in 2015. Despite no parliamentary vote having taken place, Mr Sirisena says he has not violated the constitution. Observers contest this.

It has been a stunning turn of events and, if you arrived in the country on Saturday, you would think that Mr Rajapaksa was now Sri Lanka’s undisputed prime minister.

Posters of him dressed in his trademark white robe and red sarong, resembling a sort of Buddhist deity, now adorn the walls at Bandaranaike International Airport, making him the first symbol people see when they step foot in the country. His photo is brandished across the official prime minister’s website. He now holds the upper hand in the battle for the premiership, despite the questionable legality of his appointment.

Tensions here are at their highest around the country’s power centres. Large numbers of armed security forces have surrounded President Sirisena’s residence. He accuses Mr Wickremesinghe of involvement in an India-backed assassination plot. At Temple Trees, groups of Wickremesinghe supporters encircle the compound to protect it while police maintain a wary vigil from afar.

Despite the deadlock in Sri Lanka’s halls of power, everyday life continues as normal in Colombo.

The Pettah Market, Colombo’s colourful bazaar that hosts a mix of electronic, cosmetic and fruit stalls, buzzes with shoppers and hagglers as heavy traffic worms through its narrow streets. Market traders seem unconcerned about the crisis taking place little more than a mile away, saying they must carry on their trade, whoever is in power.

A.D. Rohini in Colombo, Sri Lanka. Jack Moore / The National
A.D. Rohini in Colombo, Sri Lanka. Jack Moore / The National

Traders here are not talking about it, says A D Rohini. “The focus is that we have to work with whoever comes,” says the 58-year-old Sinhalese Buddhist parking attendant as she gestures to men on motorbikes.

“What was done was unconstitutional. If it happens, it’s a bad precedent. But I don’t think that people will let it happen again.”

A Sri Lankan proverb holds that if you receive chili for ginger, you are getting rid of something bad for something much worse. That is the feeling among some residents on the streets here about Mr Rajapaksa usurping Mr Wickremesinghe. The latter’s economic policies are unpopular for failing to curb oil prices and the depreciation of the rupee, but he is seen as an honest man, while Mr Rajapaksa is tainted by a string of corruption allegations and accusations that he is beholden to Beijing, which has saddled Sri Lanka with billions of dollars of debt through huge loans for infrastructure projects.

While hardline Buddhists revere Mr Rajapaksa for ending the civil war and defeating the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, or LTTE, others fear that the democratic gains made in the last three years will be wiped out and social schisms reopened.

“It was an injustice to Sri Lankan democracy,” says Haniffa, a 70-year-old Muslim shopkeeper on Colombo’s Galle Face Green promenade that looks out to the Indian Ocean. “I am not ruling out the possibility of violence given the track record of the previous government. Going back to him is a great concern.”

There are fears that pro-Wickremesinghe protests will be met by larger pro-Rajapaksa marches that could turn ugly.

Still, one businessman, 35-year-old Mohammed Infaz, says he is happy to ignore the political and ethnic tensions that might come with Mr Rajapaksa’s return, as he believes his two general stores will fare better under him. He says Mr Wickremesinghe failed to complete Mr Rajapaksa’s expensive projects, such as an extension of a southern highway to Hambantota, the hometown of Mr Rajapaksa, that was meant to be finished last year. Traffic, which can bring the city to its knees, is a huge concern here.

Colombo, Sri Lanka. Jack Moore / The National
Colombo, Sri Lanka. Jack Moore / The National

Others refuse to speak for fear of repercussion if Mr Rajapaksa emerges victorious from this crisis. “This government is becoming very dangerous, that is why it is difficult to say something,” says Rezwan, a 55-year-old local driver who declines to give his last name.

His 60-year-old friend and fellow driver, Bashir, is less tight-lipped and becomes impassioned when asked about Mr Rajapaksa. “The situation is not good. Law is going down. Democracy is going down,” he says. “Everyone is talking about fighting. Those who have been rejected by the people, if they want to come back, they must do so through the democratic way.”


Read more:

Sri Lanka crisis: everything you need to know

Sri Lanka political crisis splits allies

Sri Lanka speaker defies president and summons parliament


A port city that lies on the ancient east-west trade route, Colombo is an outward-looking cosmopolitan hub. The city hosts Sinhalese Buddhists, Muslims, Tamils and Moors, who mix together and pray at their respective houses of worship. Foreign expats are here in abundance. But for the next two weeks, the city will be looking inwards as anxiety over the country’s future continues.

In the past 600 years, the country was passed between Portuguese, Dutch and British rule until its independence in 1948. Colombo, which was central to colonial rule, is a city used to change.

The president has suspended parliament until November 16 and there is no end to the crisis in sight. The delay of a parliamentary vote is seen as a move by the Sirisena/Rajapaksa alliance to build majority support ahead of any vote in the 225-seat parliament. Any victory for Mr Rajapaksa would be tied to accusations of vote-buying. Mr Wickremesinghe has accused him and his allies of bribery.

The transition from London to sovereign rule in Sri Lanka was largely peaceful, but there are signs here that Mr Rajapaska's potential confirmation in the premier's seat will be far from that.