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COLOMBO, Sri Lanka -- Sri Lanka plunged deeper into political crisis after the president issued a decree to dissolve parliament and hold fresh elections, a move that experts called unconstitutional and opponents vowed to challenge in court.

The step taken late Friday marks the latest development in a showdown between Maithripala Sirisena, Sri Lanka's president, and Ranil Wickremesinghe, the country's sitting prime minister -- a confrontation with profound implications for the future of Sri Lankan democracy.

Sirisena's decision to dissolve parliament "poses a vital threat to Sri Lanka's democratic institutions," the U.S. Embassy said in a statement released Saturday. Such actions "jeopardize Sri Lanka's economic progress and international reputation."

Sirisena and Wickremesinghe represent different parties but had governed the island nation off the coast of India as part of a coalition government. Their partnership collapsed when Sirisena dismissed Wickremesinghe from his post on Oct. 26, a step that experts argue violated Sri Lanka's constitution.

Sirisena named as the new prime minister Mahinda Rajapaksa, a controversial former president and strongman known for using brutal force to end the country's 25-year-long civil war in 2009.

Since last month, the country has experienced a period of heightened tensions that threaten to give way to violence as two men claim to be Sri Lanka's rightful prime minister. Wickremesinghe has remained in the official prime ministerial residence, surrounded by supporters, while Rajapaksa has installed loyalists as new cabinet ministers.

Both the United States and Europe have expressed grave concerns about the Sri Lankan president's maneuvers and called for a swift vote in parliament to demonstrate which of the two men claiming to be the prime minister controls a majority in the chamber.

But instead of allowing such a vote in parliament, Sirisena suspended the chamber and refused to allow it to reconvene until Wednesday -- a move designed to give his ally Rajapaksa the time to pull together the requisite support.

On Friday, however, a presidential spokesperson admitted that his faction was still short of the support it needed. Hours later, at midnight, Sirisena issued a presidential gazette dissolving parliament entirely and calling for snap elections in January.

"This is an illegal act, there is no provision within the constitution for the president to dissolve parliament this way," said Ajith Perera, a member of Wickremesinghe's United National Party on Saturday.

Under Sri Lanka's constitution, parliament can be dissolved only under two conditions: when at least four and a half years have passed since the most recent election, or when two-thirds of the members assent. Neither condition has been met in the current scenario.

Members of Wickremesinghe's party held emergency meetings on Saturday to plot next steps. They held discussions with the country's Election Commission, urging it to follow the law. The Election Commission has yet to announce whether it will call for fresh polls.

Two United National Party leaders, Kabir Hasheem and Mangala Samaraweera, said they intended to file a case in the Supreme Court to challenge the dissolution of parliament.

Bhavani Fonseka, a lawyer and senior researcher at the Center for Policy Alternatives, a think tank in Colombo, said the organization also planned to challenge the presidential decree to dismiss the current parliament. Under the Sri Lankan constitution, "it is very clear that no one individual can dissolve parliament," she said.

In the weeks since the president's attempt to dismiss the prime minister, opposition to his unprecedented tactics has grown rather than dissipated. Last week, Karu Jayasuriya, the speaker of parliament, said that recent events were a "severe violation of democratic principles" that "should not have occurred in a democratic society."

A Section on 11/11/2018

Print Headline: Sri Lanka parliament dissolved

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