COLOMBO: Sri Lanka’s president on Sunday reappointed as prime minister the same man he sacked from the job nearly two months ago, ending a power struggle that paralysed the island nation.
Ranil Wickremesinghe, whose shock dismissal in late October threw Sri Lanka into an unprecedented constitutional crisis, was sworn in at a closed-door ceremony in the president’s office in Colombo.
The 69-year-old had refused to step aside since being dumped and replaced by controversial strongman Mahinda Rajapakse — leaving the country with two men claiming the premiership and no functioning government.
The ousted premier had long asserted his dismissal was illegal, a view supported by Sri Lanka’s parliament which six times voted against Rajapakse’s claim to rule during tumultuous sessions that erupted into brawls.
President Maithripala Sirisena had refused to bow to pressure as the country drifted, declaring he would never reappoint Wickremesinghe and deriding his once-ally in public speeches as their alliance imploded.
The acrimony between the two was underscored on Sunday when Sirisena berated Wickremesinghe and his supporters at length following the swearing-in, one legislator present said.
After the frosty reception, which Sirisena closed to the press, the reinstated prime minister thanked parliament and “all those who campaigned to restore democracy”.
“The first priority is to restore normality,” he said in a brief address to the nation.
“The work we initiated had been brought to a standstill.”
There was no immediate reaction from Sirisena or Rajapakse, who stood down on Saturday.
But Namal Rajapakse, his son and also a legislator, publicly extended his congratulations to Wickremesinghe.
India, which like the United States and others in the global community urged the warring factions to resolve their differences, welcomed an end to hostilities.
“This is a reflection of the maturity demonstrated by all political forces, and also of the resilience of Sri Lankan democracy and its institutions,” India’s foreign ministry spokesman said on Sunday.
Wickremesinghe said he will form a cabinet in the coming days.
Officials said priority will be given to the 2019 budget — without which Sri Lanka risks government shutdown and defaulting on its sizeable foreign debt.
Sirisena’s resistance became untenable after the country’s highest court last week ruled that he acted outside the constitution when he dissolved parliament on November 9 and called early elections.
Some factions within Sri Lanka’s parliament have pushed for Sirisena to be investigated — and possibly impeached — for orchestrating what they say was a coup.
Rajapakse, who Sirisena appointed in a sudden, late-night oath-taking ceremony, pressed ahead forming a purported government and naming a cabinet even as parliament cut off state funds to his office.
The Supreme Court confirmed Rajapakse could not exercise the powers of a prime minister until he proved his legitimacy — which without enough support in parliament was impossible.
On Saturday, Rajapakse — who presided over the bloody end to Sri Lanka’s civil war in 2009 — backed down, signalling the standoff had come to a bitter close.
However, the strongman, whose past administrations were accused of gross rights abuses and whose family still holds considerable sway in Sri Lanka, promised to make a comeback at local elections next year.
“There is no doubt at all that the people who stood by us since 2015 [when he lost the presidential election] will continue to support us in the future as well,” he said addressing his close associates.
“We will bring the forces opposed to the country down to their knees by organising the people.”
The country has been heading for a government shutdown as parliament failed to approve spending for 2019, and credit rating agencies downgraded its debt amid fears of a sovereign default.
There were doubts about the country’s ability to repay $1.5 billion (Dh5.5 billion) due to bond holders by January 10 without a legitimate administration in power.