Colombo, Sri Lanka – Sri Lanka’s newly appointed Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa has suffered a setback in his power struggle with a deposed rival after a coalition representing the country’s Tamil minority pledged to back a motion of no-confidence against him.
In a statement on Saturday, the Tamil National Alliance (TNA) called Rajapaksa’s shock appointment by the president last week “unconstitutional and illegal” and said its members would back a bid by sacked Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe to remove him.
The minority coalition has the backing of 15 legislators in the 225-member parliament and could play a key role in swaying a no-confidence vote as Rajapaksa and Wickremesinghe now command the support of about a 100 politicians each.
But analysts said the TNA’s decision did not spell defeat for Rajapaksa because the former president has managed to whittle away at Wickremesinghe’s initial majority by getting at least six members from his United National Party (UNP) to switch camps.
A majority of 113 is required to vote a prime minister out.
Sri Lanka was plunged into a constitutional crisis on October 26 when President Maithripala Sirisena fired his former ally Wickremesinghe and replaced him with Rajapaksa, an ex-president he defeated in a 2015 presidential election.
The turmoil was exacerbated by Sirisena’s subsequent decision to also suspend parliament until November 16.
Wickremesinghe, who insists he remains prime minister, has demanded a parliamentary vote to prove his majority. The United Nations backed that call on Friday, just as the UNP submitted a no-confidence motion against Rajapaksa and said the vote will be put on the agenda as soon as parliament reconvenes.
But observers believe the longer parliament remains suspended, the more likely the United People’s Freedom Alliance (UPFA) – a coalition mainly comprised of Sirisena and Rajapaksa’s political parties – will be able to tempt defections.
The TNA said Sirisena’s suspension of parliament was “undemocratic and in violation of parliamentary supremacy”.
Explaining its decision to vote against Rajapaksa, the TNA said: “Remaining neutral in such a situation would pave the way for achieving an undemocratic end by force.”
The alliance has long opposed Rajapaksa, who ruled the country from 2005 to 2015, over alleged atrocities against the ethnic minority at the close of a decades-long civil war in 2009.
The 26-year conflict left at least 100,000 people dead. According to the UN, about 40,000 people – mostly Tamil civilians – were killed in the final five months alone.
In recent days, human rights groups have warned Rajapaksa’s return might jeopardise the country’s incremental progress on transitional justice and put war victims who have spoken of human rights abuses at risk.
Thevanayagam Premananth, editor at the Jaffna-based Uthayan daily in the country’s mainly Tamil north, said the TNA’s support for the no-confidence motion puts “Rajapaksa’s victory in doubt”.
“We do not accept Rajapaksa’s appointment. We suffered a lot under him. But at the same time, people here do not support Wickremesinghe,” he added, referring to the sacked leader’s failure to deliver on promises of economic reform and accountability for war atrocities.
Premananth acknowledged that Wickremesinghe’s government had lifted curbs on political and civil liberties for the Tamil minority, which makes up about 15 percent of the country’s population, but said: “It’s not enough.”
He said Tamil votes were crucial in Sirisena defeating Rajapaksa three years ago. “And when he brought back Mahinda Rajapaksa [on October 26], people were totally shocked. Everyone is scared and thinking about the past.”
Still, in a surprising move, TNA legislator S Viyalendran defected on Friday and was later named Rajapaksa’s deputy minister of regional development.
Rajitha Keerthi Tennakoon, a Colombo-based analyst, said the move showed a “divide within the TNA” and blamed it on Tamil “frustration” with the Wickremesinghe government’s failure to improve the economy.
In its statement, the TNA strongly condemned S Viyalendran for taking part in the “conspiracy” of Sirisena and Rajapaksa, whom it accused of using the suspension to “bribe members of parliament with both money and ministerial posts” to obtain a “fraudulent majority”.
Palitha Range Bandara, a UNP member who alleged he was offered $2.8m and a ministerial post to switch support, on Saturday aired an audio clip at a news conference in which a purported senior official from Sirisena and Rajapaksa’s United People’s Freedom Alliance (UPFA) could be heard offering him a cabinet post.
“We have 113 MPs, but we would really like to have you,” the man was heard saying. “If you come now you can get a cabinet position … don’t wait.”
The UPFA has previously dismissed allegations of bribery.
Rajapaksa, in a statement soon after his appointment, pledged to “eschew politics of hate” and said he will hold long-delayed provincial elections and call a general election as soon as possible.
Dayasiri Jayasekara, a UPFA member, said the Tamils have “no reason to fear” the newly appointed prime minister.
“His administration ended the war,” he said on Saturday.
“His government developed so much infrastructure in the north and there was law and order. But Wickremesinghe has given them nothing. No jobs, no development and there is only crime. So I urge our Tamil friends not to worry,” he said.
Namal Rajapaksa, the newly appointed prime minister’s son and a member of parliament, condemned TNA’s decision in a Twitter post and said Sirisena and Rajapaksa will continue to address “the needs of the North/East”, including rehabilitating former Tamil fighters.
The UNP, meanwhile, thanked the TNA for “joining our struggle”, saying its fight was not “for a single political party, but for the future of our nation”.