Tens of thousands of people have rallied in Sri Lanka‘s capital, Colombo, in support of former president Mahinda Rajapaksa’s controversial appointment as prime minister.
Monday’s rally, near the parliament house, came amid a deepening constitutional crisis triggered by President Maithripala Sirisena’s decision to replace Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe with Rajapaksa on October 26.
Despite the heavy rain, Rajapaksa’s supporters gathered in Colombo chanting: “Whose power is this? Mahinda’s power?” and “Whose people are these? Mahinda’s people.”
Many were bussed in from cities and towns several hours away in the country’s south, as well as central highlands, including Kandy and Dambulla.
“Mahinda saved the country”, said 56-year-old Roopasena Ranjith, referring to Rajapaksa’s decisive victory against Tamil separatists in 2009, a conflict that lasted more than 26 years and claimed more than 100,000 lives.
“He is a leader we can all accept,” the resident of Avissawella, a town 50km away from Colombo, told Al Jazeera over the din of patriotic songs.
Sirisena, who arrived with Rajapaksa at the rally amid loud cheers, told the crowd that the change he initiated was more than a personnel shift.
“I ousted a vision that is incompatible with our local culture and values, and that works according to foreign agendas,” said Sirisena. “For the past three and a half years, poor people were suppressed by Wickremesinghe’s economic and political vision. Local thoughts were rejected and an extreme neo-liberal form of governance was carried out.”
He was referring to Wickremesinghe’s free-market economic policies and public-private partnerships with companies from China and India to operate strategic centres such as ports and airports.
“I love Mahinda because if he had not taken power now, Ranil would sell everything to foreigners,” said Sunitha Kumarasiri, who had concerns over “sale of state assets”.
Her husband, Nandana added: “Mahinda made Sri Lanka the wonder of Asia and he was great for self-employed people like me. Also, when the war happened, foreigners didn’t come and fight for us.”
He accused Wickremesinghe’s government of economic mismanagement, citing high inflation and taxes.
The sacked leader, who insists his removal is unconstitutional, has refused to step down and called for a vote in parliament to prove his majority.
But Sirisena has suspended parliament, in a move critics said was aimed at mustering support for Rajapaksa in the 225-member House.
Speaking at the rally, Rajapaksa said Sirisena’s decision to appoint him was a “difficult” but necessary decision for Sri Lanka.
“Wickremesinghe was destroying our children’s future. We came together because we couldn’t bear to see this happen, and because we couldn’t bear how people were suffering from high taxes,” he said, vowing to end the public’s suffering.
“We are united for democracy and justice.”
Earlier on Monday, Parliament Speaker Karu Jayasuriya warned that he would not recognise Rajapaksa as prime minister and that the president had violated the constitution by sacking Wickremesinghe and suspending parliament.
“Until the new faction [of Rajapakse] is able to prove a majority in parliament, I will recognise the situation that prevailed prior to October 26,” Jayasuriya said in a one-page statement.
“I have to agree with the majority of parliament who believe that the president’s actions are undemocratic, unconstitutional and against all norms of parliamentary procedure,” added Jayasuriya, who is originally from Wickremesinghe’s United National Party but holds a neutral position in parliament.
Sirisena added that he would not be discouraged by resistance in parliament, civil society and the international community to his actions.
“Even if there are threats, pressure and forces, I will only move forward and will not take a step back,” he said.
His faction has pressed forward with forming a new government, naming an ally to a senior leadership post in parliament despite the speaker refusing to recognise the appointment.
“Assumed the Office of Leader of the House in Sri Lanka parliament,” Dinesh Gunawardena said on Twitter on Monday.
With reporting by Rathindra Kuruwita from Colombo.