COLOMBO, Sri Lanka (AP) – The President of Sri Lanka has dissolved Parliament and called for elections on January 5 in an attempt to avoid a worsening of the political crisis for his dismissal of the prime minister who according to opponents is unconstitutional.
An official notification signed by President Maithripala Sirisena announced the dissolution of Parliament from midnight on Friday. He said that the names of the candidates will be called before November 26 and that the new Parliament will meet on January 17.
Sri Lanka has been in crisis since October 26, when Sirisena fired his prime minister, Ranil Wickremesinghe, and replaced him with the former strong man Mahinda Rajapaksa. Both claim to have a majority in Parliament and they would have to face the 225-member house on Wednesday after being suspended for around 19 days.
Foreign Minister Sarath Amunugama told the Associated Press on Saturday that the reason why the president dissolved Parliament was the need to turn to the people to find a solution to the crisis.
"On the 14th there must have been a lot of confusion and non-parliamentary activities sponsored by the speaker," Amunugama said. "The speaker was not going to act according to the constitution and the standing orders of the Parliament".
Sirisena's supporters had been bothered by President Karu Jayasuriya's announcement that he would demand a vote from each of the parties to demonstrate their support.
"The dissolution clearly indicates that Mr. Sirisena grossly misjudged and miscalculated the support he could or could guarantee to demonstrate his support in Parliament," said Bharath Gopalaswamy, director of the Atlantic Council of Southern Analysts' group Asia Center. "At the end of the day, he is a victim of his own national crisis".
Wickremesinghe has insisted that his dismissal is unconstitutional. He refused to leave his official residence and requested that the Parliament be immediately convened to show support among its members.
Tensions had been built between Sirisena and Wickremesinghe for some time, since the president did not approve the economic reforms introduced by the prime minister. Sirisena also accused Wickremesinghe and another Cabinet member of conspiring to assassinate him, an accusation that Wickremes repeatedly denied.
Sirisena criticized the investigation of military personnel accused of human rights violations during the long civil war in Sri Lanka against a Tamil separatist group, which ended in 2009. Rajapaksa, who ruled as president from 2005 to 2015, is considered a hero by the ethnic Singalesi majority for winning the conflict. But he lost a nomination for re-election in 2015 between accusations of nepotism, corruption and wartime atrocities.
The Wickremesing camp could challenge Sirisena's move because of the constitutional provisions that state that a parliament can not be dissolved until 4 and a half years after its election. The current Parliament was elected in August 2015.
"It's totally unconstitutional," said Harsha de Silva, a member of the Wickremesinghe National Party and a former minister. "Sirisena has relegated the constitution to toilet paper and we will fight this dictator until the end".
The party has declared in a Twitter message that it will meet the commissioner for the elections to discuss the constitutionality of Sirisena's move.
The US State Department has tweeted that it is deeply concerned about the news that the Sri Lankan parliament will be dissolved, "further exacerbating the political crisis".
"As a partner in Sri Lanka, we believe that democratic institutions and processes must be respected to ensure stability and prosperity," reads the statement.
Earlier US representative Eliot Engel, the senior Democrat in the Chamber of Foreign Affairs, and two other MPs wrote to Sirisena that actions that circumvent the democratic process could have an impact on the assistance of United States, including a five-year aid package planned by the Millennium Challenge Corporation is worth hundreds of millions of dollars.
"We fear that recent actions, if not corrected, will threaten the democratic development of your country and rob progress in recent years," the three MPs said in a letter, a copy of which was obtained by the Associated Press.
Rajapaksa indicated what was coming hours before the dissolution in a speech. He said the government must go to the people to confirm that the president made the right decision when he appointed him prime minister.
Associated Press writers, Krishan Francis in Colombo, Sri Lanka, Emily Schmall in New Delhi and Matthew Pennington in Washington contributed to this report.
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