Supporters of Sri Lanka’s fired prime minister and a top election official on Monday (12) challenged in court the president’s sacking of parliament, upping the ante in a political crisis that has sparked international alarm.
President Maithripala Sirisena last week called snap elections and dissolved the legislature, two weeks after sacking the prime minister and installing the divisive Mahinda Rajapakse in his place.
The United States has led a chorus of international voices expressing concern over events in the strategically important Indian Ocean island nation of 21 million people.
Three political parties holding an absolute majority in parliament and an election commissioner, one of three officials tasked with conducting polls, on Monday asked the supreme court to declare the president’s actions illegal.
Commissioner Ratnajeevan Hoole was among 12 petitioners arguing that Sirisena had violated the constitution.
In the five-page petition, Hoole said Sirisena broke the law in calling the snap elections for January 5 after a string of unconstitutional moves since October 26 when he fired Ranil Wickremesinghe, the prime minister.
Wickremesinghe’s United National Party (UNP), the main opposition Tamil National Alliance (TNA) and the leftist JVP, or People’s Liberation Front jointly filed the action.
TNA spokesman MA Sumanthiran said the Supreme Court agreed to rake up the petitions immediately considering the importance of the issue.
“We are also asking for an interim order” for an injunction against preparations for the election, which would be two years ahead of schedule, Sumanthiran said.
Court officials said chief justice Nalin Perera and two other judges decided to fast-track the hearings.
Sarath Amunugama, Sirisena’s anointed foreign minister, told Colombo-based diplomats on Monday that he expected a verdict within five days.
Legal experts say the dissolved parliament would have to be restored if the supreme court holds with the petitioners. If not, the January 5 election will have to go ahead.
Independent election monitors have also questioned the legality of the snap poll announced by Sirisena.
Civil Unrest Fears
Wickremesinghe remains holed up in the prime minister’s official residence, and both he and Rajapakse are attempting to run parallel administrations.
On Sunday (11) night, speaker Karu Jayasuriya urged civil servants to defy Sirisena’s “illegal orders”.
But later Sirisena defended his actions, saying violence among rival MPs could have led to “civil unrest” across Sri Lanka if the legislature had met as scheduled this week.
“Had I allowed the parliament to meet on November 14, there would have been violence in the House and it could have spread to our villagers and towns,” Sirisena said in a televised address.
“I acted to prevent civil unrest.”
Sirisena’s rivals maintain that he had no constitutional power to sack the assembly until it completes four-and-a-half years of its five-year term that ends in August 2020.
Only China has recognised the appointment of Rajapakse, who during his decade as president until 2015 relied heavily on Beijing for diplomatic and financial support as the West shunned him.
While in power Rajapakse ended Sri Lanka’s four-decade civil war by crushing the separatist Tamil Tigers. But 40,000 ethnic Tamils were allegedly massacred in the process.
Seventeen journalists and media workers were killed during his time in power, and Rajapakse and his family have been accused of using his period in office to line their pockets through corruption.
Monday’s meeting of diplomats called by Amunugama was boycotted by several Western diplomats while others sent low-level representatives, diplomatic sources said.