COLOMBO (Reuters) - Sri Lanka President Maithripala Sirisena’s decision to dissolve parliament, worsening an already major political crisis, has drawn criticism from Western powers, including the United States and the European Union.
Sirisena dissolved parliament on Friday night, only five days before it was due to reconvene. A new cabinet he installed was in danger of losing a vote of no confidence.
He also called a general election for Jan. 5.
The president triggered a power struggle when he sacked prime minister Ranil Wickremesinghe late last month and appointed the island’s former leader, Mahinda Rajapaksa, a pro-China strongman defeated by Sirisena in an election in 2015, in his place.
Sirisena’s rivals are set to challenge his decision, which they describe as illegal and unconstitutional, in the Supreme Court on Monday.
The U.S. Bureau of South and Central Asian Affairs said in a tweet that the United States was “deeply concerned by news the Sri Lanka Parliament will be dissolved, further deepening the political crisis”. It said democracy needed to be respected to ensure stability and prosperity.
A spokeswoman for the European Union’s foreign affairs chief Federica Mogherini said in a statement that the move “risks undermining public confidence in the country’s democratic institutions and processes and further deepens the political and economic crisis in the country.”
Last week, the EU’s ambassador warned it could consider stripping Sri Lanka of its duty-free access if it backs off commitments on rights. The EU is worried the return of Rajapaksa could derail halting progress made toward national reconciliation following a war with ethnic minority Tamil separatists that killed tens of thousands, many during the final stages under his watch as president.
Mark Field, the British minister of State for Asia and the Pacific, tweeted his concern about the dissolution of parliament days before it was due to be reconvened.
“As a friend of Sri Lanka, the UK calls on all parties to uphold the constitution and respect democratic institutions and processes,” Field said.
Canada’s Foreign Policy twitter feed said that it was “deeply concerned” about the decision and referred to the risks to reconciliation work after the nation’s civil war.
Australian Minister for Foreign Affairs Marise Payne expressed both concern and disappointment in a statement, saying the move “undermines Sri Lanka’s long democratic tradition and poses a risk to its stability and prosperity”.
Sirisena has said he fired Wickremesinghe because the prime minister was trying to implement “a new, extreme liberal political concept by giving more priority for foreign policies and neglecting the local people’s sentiment”.
Mangala Samaraweera, an ally of Wickremesinghe, said their party expects the court to rule that the dissolution of parliament was illegal and that eventually a vote in parliament will be held to test whether there is a majority.
“We will show that we have the parliament majority and we will show that the dictator president has dissolved a government which had a majority in the parliament,” he told reporters.
They were supported by the Tamil National Alliance, the main party representing ethnic Tamil groups in parliament, who said it too will petition the Supreme Court against the dissolution of the house.
“This is a clear violation of the constitution. The president can’t do this,” said M.A. Sumanthiran, a spokesman for the alliance.
India and the West have raised concerns over Rajapaksa’s close ties with China. Beijing loaned Sri Lanka billions of dollars for infrastructure projects when Rajapaksa was president between 2005-2015, putting the country deep into debt.
Wickremesinghe has refused to vacate the official prime minister’s residence saying he was the prime minister and had a parliamentary majority.
Before he signed the papers dissolving parliament and calling the election, Sirisena appointed allies of his and of Rajapaksa to cabinet positions.
One of them said Sirisena was right to order an election to end the political crisis. Dinesh Gunawardena, a newly appointed urban development minister, said the president had handed the country back to the people.
“It is the people’s right to vote. We have gone before the people. No force can interfere. The people’s mandate is supreme,” he said.
Independent legal experts have told Reuters that parliament could be dissolved only in early 2020, which would be four-and-half-years from the first sitting of the current parliament. The only other legal way would be through a referendum, or with the consent of two thirds of lawmakers.
Given those views, it was not immediately clear how Sirisena is on legal safe ground by dissolving parliament, though his legal experts have said there are provisions for him to do so.
Additonal reporting by Tom Westbrook in Sydney; Editing by Martin Howell, Sanjeev Miglani