Interior of Sri Lanka parliamentPresident Maithripala Sirisena dismissed the Sri Lankan parliament November and called a 5 January election as a simmering political standoff boiled over into a full-scale crisis [photo: Parliament website]

President Maithripala Sirisena dismissed the Sri Lankan parliament on 10 November and called an election for 5 January as a simmering political standoff boiled over into a full-scale crisis. The opposition United National Party (UNP) called the president a ‘tyrant’ and said the move to dismiss parliament was illegal and had ‘robbed the people of their rights’, the Telegraph reported.

On 26 October Sirisena had dismissed the prime minister, Ranil Wickremesinghe, and appointed his highly controversial predecessor, Mahinda Rajapaksa, in his place after the president’s United People’s Freedom Alliance party (UPFA) quit the government, the BBC reported. Sirisena had not dissolved parliament on 26 October, when he appointed Rajapaksa, but only later because of ‘his failure to secure the required number of lawmakers to prove [his] majority in parliament’, noted Shamindra Ferdinando, deputy editor of The Island.

Rajapaksa has been widely condemned for human rights abuses in the last months of the 26-year civil war, when thousands of Tamil civilians died (Commonwealth Update, November 2013), and accused of ‘corruption on an epic scale’, as the BBC put it. His return to power has put his critics and Tamils once again in fear of harassment, abduction and murder, warned the human rights activist Mario Arulthas.

Wickremesinghe refused to recognise his dismissal, ‘leaving the country facing a further two months of damaging political paralysis with a pair of bitter rivals claiming to run [the] government,’ AFP reported. Sri Lanka’s constitutional crisis could become a ‘bloodbath’, the parliamentary speaker warned, while the Sri Lankan Sunday Times noted that no foreign leaders had sent the customary congratulations to the new premier.

‘We will fight in the courts, we will fight in parliament and we will fight at the polls,’ said Mangala Samaraweera, the UNP’s ousted finance minister, the Times of India reported. The UNP had supported Sirisena to become president, Samaraweera said. ‘He [Sirisena] came to power promising to be a Mandela, but we ended up getting a Mugabe, a mad man.’

But in the Sunday Observer, the education minister Wijeyadasa Rajapakshe said the president was within his constitutional rights as the country was heading towards conflict between the legislature and the executive. ‘The president is obliged to take action in such a situation and he was compelled to dissolve parliament,’ he said, adding that the Election Commission had no power to seek the supreme court’s opinion on the move.

Meanwhile, an election monitoring group, PAFFREL, said it had asked the Election Commission to seek an opinion from the attorney-general and an order from the supreme court to rule on the president’s power to dissolve parliament. As Update went to press, Al Jazeera reported that the UNP, the Tamil National Alliance, the leftist People’s Liberation Front (JVP) and seven other organisations were petitioning the supreme court on the legality of Sirisena’s move.