Colombo, Sri Lanka – In the labyrinth corridors of power in Colombo, politicians loyal to two rival prime ministers have been fighting tooth and nail to muster enough votes to prove a majority when the country’s suspended parliament meets next week.
But on the streets of the Sri Lankan capital, home to almost one million people, the country’s protracted power struggle feels all too distant.
“All these politicians are crooks. All of them,” AK Piyadasa, an 83-year-old merchant, said matter-of-factly. “There’s no one to help us.”
It’s a sentiment that reverberates throughout Colombo – from the busy Pettah market, where AK Piyadasa sells plastic combs and strainers on a street corner, through the bustling middle-class neighbourhood of Wellawatta, to the quiet leafy suburb of Rajagiriya.
The chorus of despair – “everything is expensive”, “my life hasn’t improved at all”, “politicians don’t care about us” – seems to prevail across this multi-ethnic seaside city, where residents have been brought to their knees after years of high taxes, stagnant wages and a falling currency.
Grievances over the stuttering economy and the country’s direction have gained new impetus over the past two weeks following President Maithripala Sirisena’s decision to abruptly fire Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe and replace him with Mahinda Rajapaksa, a controversial former president accused of corruption and grave human rights abuses.
The shock moves, which included a presidential order to suspend parliamentary proceedings, have plunged Sri Lanka into constitutional chaos. According to legal experts, the president has the authority to appoint the prime minister, but does not have the power to sack the incumbent.
Since being fired, Wickremesinghe has remained holed up in the prime ministerial residence while also demanding a parliamentary vote to prove his majority. Amid mounting pressure, Sirisena, who denies acting unconstitutionally, recalled parliament on November 14, when Wickremesinghe’s supporters are hoping to table a no-confidence motion against Rajapaksa.
With both Wickremesinghe and Rajapaksa claiming to be the country’s rightful prime minister, the turmoil risks straining a struggling economy – already at its lowest level in 16 years – as well as threatening major development projects and scaring off tourists amid warnings of violence.
It wasn’t supposed to be like this. Back in 2015, Sirisena and Wickremesinghe joined forces in a bid to defeat Rajapaksa, who was seeking an unprecedented third five-year term after ending a decades-long bloody war against Tamil separatists.
The pair’s promises of economic reforms, accountability for alleged war crimes and a crackdown on corruption struck a chord with voters weary of alleged nepotism, corruption scandals and rights violations by Rajapaksa’s government.
Soon after taking office as president, Sirisena appointed Wickremesinghe as prime minister. But the euphoria of their unexpected election win gradually gave way to disillusionment as the two leaders began to clash over day-to-day administration and economic reform.
The new government, saddled by huge amounts of debt incurred by the Rajapaksa administration to fund an infrastructure boom, made a series of unpopular decisions, including leasing for 99-years a critical port in the country’s south to a Chinese company, hiking fuel prices, cutting fertiliser subsidies, and raising taxes.
As the Sirisena-Wickremesinghe infighting grew and the economy slowed down, investigations into human rights abuses and corruption also stalled. At the same time, Wickremesinghe became mired in a corruption scandal in which a central bank governor he appointed was accused of manipulating bond auctions, causing millions of dollars in losses to the state.
Meanwhile, rubbish piled up on the streets of Colombo, while the waterways that crisscross the city clogged up with waste, and residents of suburbs complained of poor street lighting and uncut grass.
“Wickremesinghe is useless. No one has benefitted from him,” said 25-year-old Pradeep Udaykumar, who barely makes ends meet by selling mobile phone batteries in Pettah.
Nearby, a 40-year-old sunglasses vendor, W Ravindran, said: “No one cares about the poor. Politicians – they make deals and they look after themselves. It’s us who suffer.”
A 60-year-old woman selling lottery tickets echoed the same sentiment. The only way out, she said, was a general election. “That way, everyone has a say.”
That call for new polls seems to be on everyone’s lips in Colombo, partly because of a widespread belief that those already elected will not act in the public interest. The disenchantment has only grown in recent days over allegations that legislators have been taking millions of dollars in bribes to switch support, as well as long-standing grievances over the electorate’s effect on the political process.
“Go to the people,” urged a Muslim man. “Let the people decide,” said a Tamil woman. “We need change,” added a 21-year-old female university student.
That’s also a message Rajapaksa has been eager to trumpet.
His Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna trounced Wickremesinghe’s United National Party (UNP) in local council elections earlier this year, and observers say his party is likely to come out on top if snap elections are held.
That’s partly because Rajapaksa, 72, continues to command huge support among Sri Lanka’s Sinhalese majority, who make up about 75 percent of the population. For many of them, the former president is a hero.
At a rally in Colombo on Monday, Upali Wijeykoon, a former soldier and the sole survivor of a mine explosion in 1992, said Rajapaksa “saved” Sri Lanka by ending the war, which according to the United Nations claimed more than 100,000 lives over three decades.
Upali, 58, travelled more than eight hours from his village in the country’s central highlands to attend the mass rally, which organisers said gathered more than 100,000 people despite heavy rains.
“I lost both my legs. I love my country and I have done whatever I can to safeguard our sovereignty,” Upali said over the din of patriotic songs and chants.
Blasting Wickremesinghe for “selling national assets to foreign countries”, the former soldier said the government’s decision to cut fertiliser subsidies has “destroyed the agricultural sector” in his home town of Horowpathana, where farming was the main source of income.
But on the opposite side, particularly among members of the country’s Tamil and Muslim minorities, the fear that Rajapaksa will roll back freedoms and democratic gains made under Wickremesinghe is more than real.
“Under Mahinda Rajapaksa people saw development. They had money. But under Ranil Wickremesinghe, I feel safer,” said Giyas Deen, a 52-year-old imam from the city of Galle in the country’s south.
“Sinhalese, Tamils and Muslims, we can all live together now.”
Deen, a father of two, said Rajapaksa had empowered Buddhist nationalists “who believe Sri Lanka is for Buddhists only”, adding he now feared a resurgence of anti-Muslim violence – such as the 2014 clashes between Buddhists and Muslims in the town of Aluthgama, in which at least four people were killed and more than a dozen Muslim houses were torched to the ground.
There are more concerns. The ex-president’s critics are particularly worried about the result of ongoing investigations into corruption allegations against members of his family, including his own brother over the massive losses incurred by the national carrier during Rajapaksa’s time in office.
Amid the growing uncertainty, several journalists working for Sri Lanka’s public media company say they are thinking of quitting their jobs because of increased government censorship.
“We have been taken hostage,” said one young female journalist at Lakehouse, a colonial-era building housing the company. “Everything we write has to be approved by government supporters.”
That editorial shift has been evident on the articles published in the company’s English newspapers. Since Rajapaksa’s appointment, the front pages of the relatively independent Daily News and the Sunday Observer have been full of flattering articles that push the government’s lines on the transfer of power and the recall of parliament.
“It’s sickening,” said the Lakehouse journalist.
The attempt by the new government to influence public debate is also omnipresent on Colombo’s streets – lampposts, traffic lights and city walls are all covered with posters showing a smiling Rajapaksa and featuring words of gratitude for Sirisena and his “brave decision”.
It’s a message, however, that is still met with resistance ahead of the crucial parliamentary vote.
Shala Amarasinghe, 23, said it was this exact fear of renewed government control that prompted her to join hundreds of activists on Sunday protesting what they called the “unconstitutional” transfer of power.
Amarasinghe said it was her first time at a demonstration.
“I’m here because if they can change the prime minister in such an arbitrary manner overnight, they can do anything they want,” she said.
“And that scares me.”