Colombo: Sri Lanka’s speaker of parliament Sunday recognised Ranil Wickremesinghe as the lawful prime minister, three days after his sacking by the president threw the Indian Ocean island into constitutional chaos.
Wickremesinghe has refused to vacate the prime minister’s official residence since being controversially deposed Friday, declaring his dismissal illegal and demanding an emergency session of parliament to prove he still commands a majority.
A thousand-strong crowd of supporters, including chanting Buddhist monks, has massed outside the colonial-era residence in Colombo where a defiant Wickremesinghe has been holding crisis talks with loyalists.
Elsewhere his successor, former strongman Mahinda Rajapakse, sought blessings at a temple ahead of naming a new cabinet as he jostles to consolidate his claim to the prime ministership.
Officials said police will now seek a court order to evict Wickremesinghe from the residence, threatening to escalate the standoff.
All police leave was cancelled amid heightened tensions in Colombo, with soldiers seen near the prime minister’s residence as well as the president’s office, but there was no sign of an intervention.
Regional neighbours and western nations have urged all sides to exercise restraint and respect the constitution.
But the political saga took another twist as Parliamentary Speaker Karu Jayasuriya backed Wickremesinghe’s request to retain the privileges and security of prime minister until another candidate could prove a majority.
“I consider the said request to be a democratic and fair request,” Jayasuriya said in a letter addressed to President Maithripala Sirisena.
Wickremesinghe’s security and official cars were withdrawn by Sirisena on Saturday as the ousted prime minister called for a vote in parliament to prove his right to hold office.
Instead, Sirisena shut parliament for nearly three weeks to forestall any challenge against Rajapakse’s appointment.
Jayasuriya warned the president that shuttering parliament risked “serious and undesirable consequences for the country” as it reeled from constitutional turmoil.
Loyalists to Rajapakse, whose decade-long rule was marked by grave allegations of rights abuses and growing authoritarianism, still control the headquarters of two state-run television channels.
The former leader travelled to a highly venerated Buddhist temple in the central district of Kandy to seek blessings from monks.
Rajapakse’s aides said he was likely to name a few cabinet ministers later Sunday and begin work on Monday. He is yet to make a formal statement or address the nation since being elevated to the new post.
A controversial figure at home and abroad, Rajapakse presided over the crushing of the decades-long Tamil Tiger uprising.
He is seen as being closer to China than Wickremesinghe, who had sought to re-establish stronger ties with traditional ally and regional power India.
The crisis has again put the Indian Ocean in the international spotlight following turmoil in neighbouring Maldives over its presidential election.
India said it was “closely following” events in Colombo.
“As a democracy and a close friendly neighbour, we hope that democratic values and the constitutional process will be respected,” India’s foreign ministry spokesman Raveesh Kumar said Sunday.
The United States and European Union ambassadors in Colombo have called on the Sri Lankan rivals to follow the constitution and avoid violence.
China’s ambassador to Colombo met separately with Rajapakse and Wickremesinghe on Saturday, officials said.
Colombo-based Western diplomats met with Wickremesinghe for a briefing on the sacking.
Many observers now expect a series of court battles to follow the crisis.
Privately-run newspapers on Sunday described Sirisena’s move as a “constitutional coup”.
Political commentator Victor Ivan said Sirisena’s action was a blatant violation of the constitution and “a capture of power through a conspiracy”.
However, Rajapakse loyalist and former foreign minister G.L. Peiris said there was nothing illegal about sacking Wickremesinghe and challenged him to prove his majority when parliament returns on November 16.
The falling out between Wickremesinghe and Sirisena has come to a head since the president this year backed a no-confidence motion against the man he had handpicked to lead the government.
The two allied against Rajapakse in the 2015 election, but their relationship steadily soured.
Sirisena initially said he would be a one-term president but has since indicated he will seek re-election next year, pitting himself against Wickremesinghe who also has presidential ambitions.
Wickremesinghe’s party has the largest number of seats in the parliament.
This is the second time that a president has ousted Wickremesinghe from office. In 2004, the then head of state sacked him and called snap elections.
After winning the premiership a third time in August 2015, Wickremesinghe amended the constitution to remove the president’s power to sack prime ministers to prevent a repeat of his earlier ouster.