Sri Lankan President Maithripala Sirisena has ruled out ever reinstating deposed Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe, even if the latter is able to prove he has majority support in parliament.
Speaking to reporters from foreign media outlets on Sunday, the president accused his former ally, who he abruptly sacked last month and replaced with former President Mahinda Rajapaksa, of being “highly corrupt”.
“Even if the UNP has the majority, I told them not to bring Ranil Wickremesinghe before me, I will not make him prime minister … not in my lifetime,” Sirisena said, referring to talks with members of the deposed leader’s United National Party.
“He is corrupt. His economic policies are not good for local industries. He pursued an extremely liberal form of government that is not compatible with our culture.”
The allegations marked the latest escalation in the dramatic falling out between Sirisena and Wickremesinghe.
The two men had joined forces before presidential elections in 2015 to defeat Rajapaksa, a controversial figure regarded as a hero by the ethnic Sinhalese majority for ending Sri Lanka‘s civil war by crushing ethnic Tamil separatists, but who has also faced allegations of wartime atrocities and corruption.
But after their election victory, Sirisena and Wickremesinghe saw their relations turning south amid disagreements over government administration, economic reforms and an alleged assassination plot against the president.
The tensions boiled over on October 26 with Wickremesinghe’s firing – a move widely denounced as unconstitutional.
Subsequent attempts by Sirisena to dissolve parliament altogether and order elections for early next year temporarily have been blocked by the country’s Supreme Court. The court is expected to deliver a verdict on the president’s moves on December 7.
Speaking to the foreign media correspondents, Sirisena also said he planned to appoint a commission to investigate corruption and malpractice “under Wickremesinghe’s government”.
The UNP was quick to hit back at the president’s comments.
“He [Sirisena] can choose any superintendent for his private coconut estate, but in government, he must recognise the leader of the largest single party in parliament,” party spokesperson Harsha de Silva told the AFP news agency on Sunday.
De Silva added that the UNP, which holds 106 seats in the 225-member legislature, welcomed any corruption investigation, but insisted that existing inquiries into several high-profile murder cases and corruption scandals allegedly linked to Rajapaksa should also be pursued with vigour.
Earlier, Sirisena had told the foreign media correspondents that ongoing investigations into abductions, killings of journalists and other crimes allegedly committed by those linked to Rajapaksa and his cabinet would not be interfered with.
“With a political change of this nature, there could be different thoughts, but my policy is that they should not change,” Sirisena said when asked about the fate of the investigations with Rajapaksa now in control of the government.
“No one can interfere” with the police and courts, he added.
Almost a month into Sri Lanka’s power struggle, both Wickremesinghe and Rajapaksa have separately continued to lay claim to being the country’s legitimate prime minister, an office subordinate to the presidency.
Wickremesinghe has remained holed up in the prime minister’s residence, while Rajapaksa has control of the post’s official offices.
The two rivals and Sirisena held direct talks last week aimed at ending the protracted crisis, but the summit failed to produce a breakthrough with neither side shifting their stance following two preceding no-confidence votes against Rajapaksa in parliament.
Both Sirisena and Rajapaksa have rejected the outcome of the November 14 and 18 votes, both of which saw a majority of parliamentarians reject the latter’s leadership, claiming the chamber’s speaker had failed to follow appropriate procedures in the holding of the ballots.
The ongoing turmoil has heightened international fears about the stability of Sri Lanka, a country with outstanding foreign debt repayments of more than $50bn.
The country’s parliament is due to convene this week, on Tuesday and Thursday, to discuss a UNP-proposed motion to cut off government spending.
If the UNP wins the vote, it could force Rajapaksa to withdraw his claim to the leadership, and pressure Sirisena into naming a prime minister from the party.