COLOMBO: Sri Lankan President Maithripala Sirisena Friday sacked his Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe and appointed former president Mahinda Rajapakse as the new premier in a dramatic political development on Friday after his party abruptly quit the ruling coalition. The validity of the swearing-in remains unclear.
A private TV channel loyal to Rajapakse, Sirisena's former foe, broadcast a rushed swearing-in ceremony of Rajapaksa taking oath as the PM, replacing Ranil Wickremesinghe.
The sudden development came after Sirisena's broader political front United People's Freedom Alliance (UPFA) announced that it has decided to quit the current unity government with prime minister Ranil Wickremesinghe's United National Party (UNP).
The unity government was formed in 2015 when Sirisena (leader of the Sri Lanka Freedom Party -SLFP) was elected President with Wickremesinghe's support, ending a nearly decade-long rule by Rajapaksa.
But questions remain over the legality of the move, as a constitutional amendment passed in 2015 had taken away the president's power to sack the prime minister.
What could have led to this?
The surprise move comes after disagreements between Sirisena and ousted Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe over economic policy and day-to-day administration of the government. The pair were reported to have clashed in cabinet last week over government plans to lease a container terminal to neighbouring India.
Wickremesinghe had helped Sirisena defeat Rajapakse in the 2015 elections but has drifted apart from the president since.
Earlier this year, Sirisena reneged on a pledge not to run for re-election, sparking tensions with Wickremesinghe who is believed to have his own presidential ambitions.
Sirisena is also believed to be behind a failed attempt to impeach Wickremesinghe in April.
Relations between Sirisena and Wickremesinghe's political parties, who have governed in coalition since 2015, have soured since both suffered humiliating losses in February's local council elections.
Last week, it was reported that Sirisena accused his senior coalition partner the UNP of not taking seriously an alleged conspiracy to assassinate him and Gotabhaya Rajapaksa, the former top defence ministry bureaucrat and brother of ex-president Mahinda Rajapaksa.
Ranil Wickremesinghe cries foul
Sacked premier Ranil Wickremesinghe dismissed the appointment of Rajapaksa as "illegal and unconstitutional". In a telephonic conversation with a TV station, Wickremesinghe said "I will continue to be the Prime Minister. Mahinda Rajapaksa's appointment is unconstitutional".
Similarly, Finance Minister Mangala Samaraweera tweeted that "the appointment of Mahinda Rajapaksa as the Prime Minister is unconstitutional and illegal. This is an anti-democratic coup".
Political analysts said Sirisena's move to install Rajapaksa as the prime minister could lead to a constitutional crisis as the 19th amendment to the Constitution would not allow the sacking of Wickremesinghe as the premier without a majority.
Rajapaksa and Sirisena combine has only 95 seats and is short of a simple majority.
Wickremesinghe's UNP has 106 seats on its own, just seven short of the majority.
The LTTE past
Former president Rajapakse put down the decades-old Tamil Tiger separatist struggle in May 2009 through a military assault that killed up to 40,000 ethnic Tamil civilians, according to rights groups.
Rajapakse's iron-fisted government was also accused of corruption and murdering political opponents.
International rights groups have called for the prosecution of both the military and the Tigers, who were notorious for suicide bombings and enlisting child soldiers.
Sirisena won elections against Rajapakse in 2015 on a platform of economic reform and accountability for atrocities committed during his opponent's 10-year rule at the close of Sri Lanka's bloody civil war. Sirisena has faced international criticism for being slow to deliver on justice.
Colombo was on the verge of facing economic sanctions from Western nations over Rajapakse's human rights record before his government lost office.
(with inputs from AFP and PTI)