Explainer: The overnight constitutional crisis in Sri Lanka

According to Sri Lanka President Maithripala Sirisena, an assassination plot as well as policy and cultural differences between him and Ranil Wickremesinghe escalated events that resulted in the split.
Explainer: The overnight constitutional crisis in Sri Lanka
Explainer: The overnight constitutional crisis in Sri Lanka
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On Friday, October 26, without any prior indication whatsoever, news broke in Sri Lanka that the United People’s Freedom Alliance (UPFA), headed by President Maithripala Sirisena, had withdrawn from the coalition government. Shortly after, news footage showed Mahinda Rajapaksa being sworn in as Prime Minister before President Sirisena.

Key Players

Rajapaksa was previously President from 2005 to 2015. Sirisena was Minister of Health and Minister in Charge of Defence at certain points in Rajapaksa’s Cabinet in 2010 until he unexpectedly crossed over to the then Opposition in 2014.

Soon after, those loyal to Sirisena in the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) formed a coalition with the United National Party (UNP), led by Ranil Wickremesinghe. Sirisena was put forward as the common candidate of the Opposition. Surprising everyone, he was voted into power in January 2015, promising greater transparency and accountability, and a crackdown on corruption. Wickremesinghe was appointed Prime Minister.


The election result, ending the 10-year Rajapaksa regime, was seen as an indication that the public was tired of the widespread corruption, nepotism and violence under his reign, and wanted a change. It was also the first time that the two parties, historically at loggerheads, came together in an attempt to govern.

The coalition government began an ambitious reform package, including measures to introduce constitutional and electoral reform. The Government also co-sponsored a UN resolution in 2015 (on promoting reconciliation, accountability and human rights) that required them to make concrete commitments on transitional justice, following the end of Sri Lanka’s nearly three-decade-long civil war in May 2009.

However, these processes became mired in setbacks, largely as a result of deep and enduring divisions along the lines of ethnicity and religion, post-war. Rajapaksa’s party had long appealed to the Sinhala nationalist vote-base, especially since the war had come to an end under his regime. The new Government, and especially the UNP, was seen by this vote-base as being elitist, remote and pro-minority. Sirisena was tainted by association. Infighting between the two factions began to take its toll.

In February 2018, Rajapaksa’s Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna won over 44% of the vote in the local government elections. Sirisena’s party won just over 8%. While the UNP still won a significant part of the vote, the elections were seen as a blow to the coalition government.  The SLPP was a new party, a breakaway faction of the SLFP consisting of Rajapaksa and his loyalists. No one had expected them to garner such a high percentage of the vote.

The first public hints of a rift began with a series of Cabinet reshuffles, culminating in a no-confidence motion levelled against Prime Minister Wickremesinghe in April 2018.

At the last minute, on 8 May, 16 MPs from Sirisena’s SLFP, including the Deputy Speaker of Parliament, voted in favour of the motion to dismiss the Prime Minister. However, the motion was defeated, and the 15 MPs lost their portfolios.

A tale of two Prime Ministers

Addressing the nation on October 28, Sirisena said an assassination plot that involved threats to his life, as well as policy and cultural differences between himself and Wickremesinghe, had escalated events resulting in the split.

Leading lawyers and members of civil society have said that Sirisena’s move is unconstitutional and amounted to a coup since the 19th Amendment makes specific reference to the circumstances in which a Prime Minister can be removed. The President denied this in his speech.

Both Wickremesinghe and Rajapaksa said they commanded the majority in Parliament, but Sirisena has prorogued Parliament until November 16 and has done so before a floor vote could be called.

With Parliament prorogued, significant tensions prevail and are spilling over into violence. SLPP unionists forcibly entered the building of the state-run Associated Newspapers of Ceylon Limited. Editor of the English weekly Sunday Observer, Dharisha Bastians confirmed that she was unable to carry out her editorial duties and had to leave the Lake House Building. She added that she was unable to take responsibility for the next day’s edition (October 28).  

State-run television station Rupavahini interrupted its broadcast as thugs entered the premises. Keheliya Rambukwella, former Minister of Media and Mass Information during Rajapaksa’s regime, was on the scene and watched on.

By October 28, new Chairmen were appointed to the state-run print, broadcast and radio media. On the same day, a group of workers at Ceylon Petroleum Corporation confronted MP Arjuna Ranatunga as he attempted to enter his office. In the ensuing melee, his bodyguard killed one and injured two.

Pressure mounted on Wickremesinghe to vacate his post. National Freedom Front (NFF) leader Wimal Weerawansa issued an ultimatum to Wickremesinghe to leave Temple Trees by 8 am, but the deadline came and went without any incident. Wickremesinghe’s security detail was also reduced to merely 10 Special Task Force personnel.

Meanwhile, Speaker of the Parliament Karu Jayasuriya wrote to the President over the weekend, recognising Wickremesinghe as still the legitimate PM and asking Parliament to urgently convene before November 16, since the act of proroguing Parliament would lead to “serious and undesirable consequences for the country.”

At the time of writing though, Parliament has yet to convene. Some MPs have already switched sides, increasing uncertainty. The final test will be, which side holds the majority vote – as a no-confidence motion against the Prime Minister will likely be the first order of business, either on November 16 or before.

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