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Chaos in House as Rajapaksa refuses to endorse vote

Sri Lankan MPs try to assault Speaker Karu Jayasuriya

A group of Sri Lankan lawmakers resorted to an assault on the Speaker on Thursday, when the House descended into chaos just as former President Mahinda Rajapaksa sought snap elections.

Hurling verbal abuses at Speaker Karu Jayasuriya, MPs backing Mr. Rajapaksa marched up to the Speaker’s chair, after refusing to participate in a vote on their leader’s address in the House.

Through a no-confidence motion on Wednesday, 122 MPs had voted out Mr. Rajapaksa, who had been controversially installed as Prime Minister by President Maithripala Sirisena, in place of sacked PM Ranil Wickremesinghe. Following the widely-criticised appointment on October 26, the country has been witnessing a spiralling political crisis.

In his opening remarks on Thursday, the Speaker said there was no government or Opposition in the House since Wednesday’s vote. However, refusing to acknowledge the vote passed by the House, Mr. Rajapaksa and his purported government continued claiming legitimacy in office. “I call upon all parties and MPs to join hands with us to go for fresh elections,” Mr. Rajapaksa told the House.

No floor test

Mr. Wickremesinghe’s United National Party (UNP) immediately sought a floor test on Mr. Rajapaksa’s demand and the Speaker called for a vote by name. However, for the second consecutive day, Mr. Rajapaksa and his MPs rejected the option of a vote in the House.

Some of the lawmakers began abusing the Speaker verbally while others tried to pelt him with objects, ranging from a dustbin to a book. One MP injured his hand trying to rip out the Speaker’s microphone and was later taken to hospital.

Mr. Rajapaksa did not restrain his aggressive MPs, and the escalating tensions soon provoked many UNP MPs to retaliate, and the House saw them exchange punches until what seemed an inevitable adjournment. Later, the Speaker, along with party leaders, decided to reconvene the session Friday afternoon.

Many parliamentarians, shocked at their colleagues’ violent actions, said it was a “shameful day” for members. “If they [the Rajapaksa camp] want elections, why are they so averse to the idea of a vote in the House of people’s representatives?” asked Mylvaganam Thilakarajah, a legislator with the UNP-led coalition, and a member of the Tamil Progressive Alliance representing hill-country Tamils. “If they behave in such a disruptive manner when they don’t have a majority in Parliament, imagine how they might when they have it,” he said, shortly after the sitting ended chaotically.

Those on Mr. Rajapaksa’s side too admitted that such tensions were unprecedented. Chamal Rajapaksa, a former Speaker and elder brother of Mahinda Rajapaksa, told : “This is the first instance of such disruption in our Parliament. We haven’t seen anything like this before here, but it happens in other countries like India.”

Sri Lanka’s political stalemate persists, with no official government in place or a resolution in Parliament. Meanwhile, tens of thousands flocked to a UNP rally in Colombo on Thursday where its leaders said they were not afraid of polls, but called for elections that were constitutional.

In a separate development, Mr. Sirisena on Thursday evening met the Speaker and leaders of parties that voted against Mr. Rajapaksa . According to a statement from his office, Mr. Sirisena expressed his objection to part of the ‘no-confidence motion’ tabled on Wednesday. The parties, the statement said, agreed to reword it and take it up again on Friday. The President and Speaker have been on collision course over the vote passed on Wednesday.

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