The trigger for Friday’s dramatic developments in Colombo that saw President Maithripala Sirisena abruptly sack Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe and replace him with former President Mahinda Rajapaksa appears to have been three recent developments that together became the breaking point in an already tenuous relationship between Mr. Sirisena and Mr. Wickremesinghe.
According to top political sources in Colombo, it was “a statement”, “a rejection” and “a press conference” that brought the long-simmering tensions in the ruling coalition to a head.
While Sri Lankans were aware about how fragile the three-year-old national unity government had turned, few had expected such a sudden denouement. Though reports of a Rajapaksa-Sirisena regrouping had begun to surface in the local media — with news even appearing of a recent meeting between the two ostensibly to discuss an alliance — the actual prospects of their allying had remained far from certain, given the complex dynamic between the duo since 2015, when Mr. Sirisena defected from Mr. Rajapaksa’s government and dislodged him.
So, Friday’s developments, which saw the allies-turned-foes-turned allies joining hands again to claim power, apparently challenging constitutional and parliamentary logic in the process, caught not just political observers but even some of Mr. Sirisena’s own supporters completely off-guard.
So what really precipitated the turn of events that resulted in the current political crisis?
According to sources close to Mr. Sirisena, “the end” of the unity government was set in motion a week ago in the wake of Mr. Wickremesinghe’s strongly worded statement from New Delhi soon after his meeting with Prime Minister Narendra Modi on October 20.
“The statement seemed targeted at the President, almost holding him directly responsible for the delay in Indian projects here,” a senior government official said, requesting anonymity. The Sri Lankan PM had reportedly not consulted the President’s office before releasing the statement that is said to have “surprised” New Delhi too.
Just a few days later, on October 25, Sri Lanka’s Constitutional Council rejected two of Mr. Sirisena’s nominees for vacancies at the Supreme Court and the Court of Appeal.
Police briefing on ‘plot’
And on Friday, the Sri Lankan police held a special media briefing on the “assassination plot” allegedly targeting Mr. Sirisena — an issue that had caused a storm at last week’s Cabinet meeting. Police spokesman Ruwan Gunasekara told presspersons that a CID investigation of police informant Namal Kumara’s phone recordings — Mr. Kumara had earlier claimed knowledge of the “plot” — had no evidence linking any of the recordings to the “assassination” conspiracy. Sources said the police’s briefing appeared to “belittle” a life threat to the Head of State. “It was perhaps the cumulative effect of all these different developments,” said another top government official, who did not wish to be named.
Separately, trade unions owing allegiance to Mr. Rajapaksa’s Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP) took control of state-owned Lake House newspapers late on Friday, Colombo’s Daily FT reported. The state-run Daily News led Saturday’s edition with the story “Mahinda Sworn in as PM”, indicating that the paper is no longer controlled by the Media Ministry helmed by the UNP’s Mangala Samaraweera. Mr. Samaraweera, in a tweet, had termed Friday’s developments “an anti-democratic coup”.
The Reuters news agency reported that the state-run Rupavahini television station had “briefly” gone off-air on Friday when three Ministers in Mr. Wickremesinghe’s government, including Mr. Samaraweera and Cabinet spokesman Rajitha Senaratne, were preparing for a live telecast.