Sri Lanka: Deposed PM's opponents seek to bar him from parliament

Lawsuit accuses Wickremesinghe of doing business with government, a claim if true, dashes his hopes of returning as PM.

    Ranil Wickremesinghe (right) has called for mass protests to pressure President Sirisena to reinstate him [File: Reuters]
    Ranil Wickremesinghe (right) has called for mass protests to pressure President Sirisena to reinstate him [File: Reuters]

    Sri Lanka's deposed Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe is facing a lawsuit challenging his right to hold a seat in parliament amid a bitter power struggle that has driven the South Asian country progressively deeper into crisis.

    A petition filed at the Court of Appeal on Tuesday accused Wickremesinghe of doing business with Sri Lanka's government, a claim if true, would disqualify him from parliament and dash his hopes of returning to the prime minister's post. 

    The case against Wickremesinghe alleges he holds shares in a company that prints cheques for state-owned banks.

    It was filed by a supporter of the overthrown leader's successor, Mahinda Rajapaksa, who has been temporarily barred from acting as prime minister by the Court of Appeal, leaving the country without a functioning government.

    The decision was made pending the court's hearing of a petition brought by members of parliament on Rajapaksa's refusal to step down despite losing two no-confidence motions in November.

    Sri Lanka has been in turmoil since October 26 when President Maithripala Sirisena sacked Wickremesinghe and replaced him with Rajapaksa, a former president accused of corruption and human rights abuses. But in the ensuing weeks, Rajapaksa could not muster enough support in parliament, and Sirisena subsequently dissolved the 225-member House and called for snap elections to take place in January. 

    The Supreme Court, however, halted the president's moves amid a legal challenge, allowing parliament to resume. The top court is due to deliver a verdict on the case later this week. 

    Ajith Perera, a member of Wickremesinghe's United National Party (UNP), told Al Jazeera the lawsuit against the overthrown leader was "filed out of desperation". 

    "I am sure the court will throw the case out," he said. "They have filed this case to rattle us because they have lost so much face due to previous court decisions."

    In 1999, the Court of Appeal stripped a Sri Lankan legislator of his seat after it found the politician was involved in a company supplying dental equipment to the government. 

    'People power campaign'

    The lawsuit against Wickremesinghe, who insists his sacking was unconstitutional, came after he called for mass demonstrations to pressure Sirisena to reinstate him.

    In a statement on Monday, he said he commanded the support of parliament and Sirisena has until Friday to recognise that.

    Wickremesinghe - who is confident of a top court ruling against Sirisena – said tens of thousands of the party faithful would rally in Sri Lanka's capital, Colombo, if the president did not heed the court's decision.

    "After the court ruling, we will launch our 'People Power' campaign to force the president to end the crisis," he said.

    The UNP is also expected to table a motion requesting a vote on Wickremesinghe's support in parliament on Wednesday.

    The party commands the support of 103 legislators in the 225-member House and expects the Tamil National Alliance, a coalition of 14 legislators who represent the country's ethnic Tamil minority, to back the resolution. 

    Sirisena has previously refused to reinstate Wickremesinghe. In November, he said: "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."

    The former allies had fallen out over economic policy, day-to-day administration, and what Sirisena said was the involvement of a Wickremesinghe ally in an alleged assassination plot against him. 

    Meanwhile, the court of appeal's decision on December 3 to temporarily bar Rajapaksa and his cabinet has left Sri Lanka without a government. 

    On the same day, Sirisena met with the top bureaucrats from government ministries and instructed them to "continue their duties and ensure there was no breakdown in public services".

    He has held regular meetings with the civil servants since. 

    'Major consequences'

    Rajitha Keerthi Tennakoon, a Colombo-based political analyst, said the government's suspension had "reduced the activities of the public sector tremendously".

    However, "there has been no breakdown as of yet and there are no problems in obtaining public services such as health and education," Tennakoon told Al Jazeera.

    "But this will have major consequences in the long term."

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    Chief among the concerns was the parliament's failure to approve a budget for 2019.

    Wickremesinghe's UNP in a post on Twitter on Tuesday said Sirisena's refusal to "appoint a legitimate government" meant more than one million government servants will not receive salaries after January 1, 2019.

    Lakshman Silva, a 62-year-old former civil servant, told Al Jazeera he was "worried" about receiving his pension payment.

    The parliament's failure to pass a budget means "I might not have an income from next year," he said, adding: "I don't have a lot of savings … so I am really worried about the next few months and I hope things will be sorted, I don't care how." 

    The protracted crisis has also hit the country's economy. The country's currency fell to a record low of 177.20 to the dollar in November, and foreign investors pulled out more than 30bn rupees ($169.5m) since the crisis began. 

    The travel industry, which makes up about 5 percent of Sri Lanka's $87bn economy, has also reported cancellations by both businesses and leisure visitors. 

    Rathindra Kuruwita contributed reporting from Colombo.

    SOURCE: Al Jazeera and news agencies