It was the new Sri Lankan Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa’s first day in parliament, alongside the lawmakers he was appointed to lead. But he got a less-than-welcoming reception.
Instead, parliament on Wednesday spared no time in passing a no-confidence motion against him, less than three weeks after he was sworn into the job.
When the parliament speaker announced a debate over the motion, the chamber devolved into chaos, with Rajapaksa’s supporters yelling slogans about injustice. Rajapaksa and his son, a fellow lawmaker, stormed out before the final vote tally was read out.
The motion passed with 122 votes from the 225-seat house.
Outside, riot police stood between angry supporters of rival politicians.
A former president and strongman, Rajapaksa emerged from Sri Lanka’s 26-year civil war as a hero to many among the country’s Buddhist majority. But he is deeply unpopular among minority ethnic Tamils, especially in the country’s north, where he led a counterinsurgency against Tamil separatists that killed thousands of civilians.
He was appointed prime minster on Oct. 26 after the current president sacked the incumbent, Ranil Wickremesinghe, to whom a majority of lawmakers remain loyal.
Many of Wickremesinghe’s supporters wore sashes to parliament Wednesday embroidered with the words “for democracy.”
The no-confidence vote may force the resignation of Rajapaksa, although his allies say they do not recognize the legitimacy of Wednesday’s vote. Either way, the latest move deepens a weeks-long constitutional crisis in the island republic of some 21 million in the Indian Ocean, off India’s southeast tip, which bills itself one of Asia’s oldest democracies.
Just nine years after emerging from civil war, the country has become a battleground for competing influence between neighboring India and China. Beijing has invested heavily in Sri Lanka’s infrastructure, as the country’s economic growth slows to its lowest level in more than a decade. Rajapaksa is considered closer to China than Wickremesinghe.
The latest crisis began late last month, when President Maithripala Sirisena shocked the country by announcing that he had uncovered an alleged plot to assassinate him, and that it involved a Cabinet minister. He offered neither details nor names, but abruptly fired Wickremesinghe, and appointed Rajapaksa in his place.
Then Wickremesinghe refused to step down, leaving two men claiming to be Sri Lanka’s rightful prime minister.
That appears to still be the case. As of late Wednesday, both men’s Twitter accounts list their titles as prime minister.
Following the no-confidence motion, Wickremsinghe tweeted that he would “now take steps to ensure that the government in place before the 26th Oct will continue.”
“You cannot carry out illegal orders from the purported government that has failed to demonstrate the confidence of the people,” he wrote, addressing his comments to “all government servants and police.”
The U.S. State Department has expressed “concern” over the ongoing crisis and along with other foreign governments and civil society groups, urged lawmakers to continue dialogue in parliament.
After Wickremsinghe was sacked last month, violence broke out in areas around government buildings in the capital Colombo, when one of his Cabinet ministers tried to get back into his office. One person was killed in the mayhem.
Then last week, Sirisena dissolved parliament after it became clear that Rajapaksa could not muster enough support to form his own government. The president called fresh elections for Jan. 5.
Late Tuesday, Sri Lanka’s Supreme Court intervened, suspending Sirisena’s dissolution of parliament and ordering lawmakers to keep working until December. Justices say they will issue a final ruling Dec. 7 on the constitutionality of Wickremesinghe’s ouster.
It’s unclear what happens next.
Sirisena could reinstate Wickremesinghe, though he has vowed in the past not to do so. He could appoint someone else as prime minister. Or he could await the Supreme Court’s decision next month.