Even before the coordinated bombings that killed 250 people last month, Sri Lanka’s president and prime minister were in trouble — largely of their own making.
Now calls for President Maithripala Sirisena and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe to step aside when their terms are over, if not before, are mounting from opposition groups as well as from the ranks of their own parties.
A member of Mr. Wickremesinghe’s party issued a public letter last week, asking the prime minister to make way for new leadership. Then, on Tuesday, a small opposition group in Parliament initiated no-confidence votes against both leaders, citing their failure to act on intelligence warning that an attack was imminent as well as their leadership in the aftermath.
The calls for accountability coincide with jostling for an upcoming presidential election, and they seem to have all but crushed the chances for both men, senior officials, party members and analysts said in interviews.
The decline of a coalition that had promised a Sri Lanka free from the shackles of its long civil war has created an opening for the former ruling family, the Rajapaksas, who ended the war but did so with a heavy hand. It is a reminder of how fragile the country’s democracy remains, with the threat of a return to what had been an increasingly authoritarian regime constantly hanging over the nation.
The former strongman president, Mahinda Rajapaksa, saw his attempt to grab power as prime minister quashed last winter. The presidential ambitions of Gotabaya Rajapaksa, his brother and the notorious wartime defense chief, faced a major hurdle this spring: His luck running from accusations of atrocities ended with court cases filed against him in California.
Now, the former president is casting himself as a unifying leader. And Gotabaya Rajapaksa recently declared himself just the type of president Sri Lanka needs as it faces a security crisis.
Activists fear that the Rajapaksas could exploit the opening to return to power, just as the armed forces have gained sweeping powers, including the authority to arrest and detain at will, in the aftermath of the bombings. The army has also reinstated a major implicated in the murder and abduction of journalists, letting him lead a special team investigating the terrorist networks behind the bombings.
Communal tensions remain high following the bombings on Easter Sunday that were claimed by the Islamic State, with fears of retaliation against Muslims, who make up 10 percent of the population. Intermittent clashes have broken out.
Before the attacks, Mr. Sirisena had hoped to seek a second term despite becoming increasingly isolated. Mr. Wickremesinghe, the prime minister, also had ambitions for the presidency.
But Sri Lankans have been angry at both leaders. Members of the president’s and prime minister’s parties, as well as leaders of minority parties crucial to their coalition’s victory in 2015, made clear that they would not support either man as their candidate in an election scheduled to be held this year.
“I write this not because I am against you, but because I now think your time has passed,” Rehan Wijeratne Jayawickreme, a member of Mr. Wickremesinghe’s United National Party, wrote in an open letter asking the prime minister to step aside.
On Tuesday, a small party, Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna, brought a no-confidence motion against both leaders. Lawmakers cannot use such a motion to remove Mr. Sirisena as president, but the party wants to vote on his continuation as defense minister, a post he also holds.
“Both of them are responsible,” said Gamini Viyangoda, a civil society activist who campaigned for the coalition of Mr. Sirisena and Mr. Wickremesinghe. Mr. Viyangoda said Mr. Sirisena was “completely exposed” after failing to act on multiple reports from local and international intelligence agencies warning that attacks on Sri Lanka were being planned. Mr. Wickremesinghe has tried to deflect blame by saying that Mr. Sirisena excluded him from security meetings, but Mr. Viyangoda said that was no excuse.
An unlikely coalition brought Mr. Sirisena and Mr. Wickremesinghe together in the 2015 election against Mahinda Rajapaksa, who had changed the constitution to allow himself a third term.
Mr. Wickremesinghe’s party formed the core of the coalition. In a creative move, it persuaded Mr. Sirisena, the secretary general of Mr. Rajapaksa’s party, to defect and run as the leader of the coalition against his boss. The strategy succeeded, and the coalition won.
But governing the country proved much trickier, and the two leaders clashed immediately. Mr. Wickremesinghe, feeling that he had made Mr. Sirisena president, rarely missed a chance to remind him. For his part, Mr. Sirisena felt that the risks he had taken in breaking with his lifelong party were not fully appreciated.
Last fall, their disputes turned into a full-blown constitutional crisis as Mr. Sirisena, seeking to shore up support, turned to the Rajapaksas, whose party could nominate him for a second term as president, officials said.
Calling Mr. Wickremesinghe corrupt, Mr. Sirisena swore in Mr. Rajapaksa as prime minister and then dissolved Parliament when lawmakers denounced the move as unconstitutional. The country’s Supreme Court ordered that Parliament be reconvened, and lawmakers voted to remove Mr. Rajapaksa.
Mr. Wickremesinghe returned as prime minister, but he and Mr. Sirisena remained at odds. Critics say the friction between them may have contributed to the government’s failure to anticipate the Easter Sunday bombings.
The episode left Mr. Sirisena further isolated. He had already taken up a fight with the coalition partner that had brought him to power. Now, he had failed to deliver on his promise to make his former leader prime minister.
“With the current situation, the people have rejected the current leadership of the country,” said Namal Rajapaksa, the son of the former president and a member of Parliament. “So there is no chance for us to select anyone from this government, or President Sirisena, as our candidate.”
With presidents once again restricted to two terms, Mahinda Rajapaksa is ineligible to run. Gotabaya Rajapaksa remains a divisive figure among the minority parties that were decisive in the last election. The Rajapaksa family itself seems also divided on whether he should run.
But the uncertain security situation, and the frustration with the performance of the incumbent government, has created a much larger pool of undecided voters among the ethnic majority Sinhalese that the Rajapaksas could easily attract. A bigger swing vote among the majority could also undermine the minority parties’ ability to anoint the next leader.
Abraham Sumanthiran, a leader of the Tamil National Alliance, which played an important role in the movement that defeated Mahinda Rajapaksa in 2015, said fears that the Rajapaksas could use the moment of crisis to their advantage were palpable.
“Most of those who were part of the movement are fearful that that could become a reality,” Mr. Sumanthiran said. “But I don’t think we will go back to that. The minorities are yet not in a position to support a Rajapaksa — no way.” (New York Times)