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Colombo: The Sri Lankan government, led by embattled President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, won two important victories in Parliament on Tuesday, May 17. One, when its candidate for the spot of deputy speaker got elected; and two, when it convincingly defeated an opposition move to urgently debate on a censure motion that blamed the President for the island nation’s worst ever economic crisis.
A Motion of Displeasure, tabled by opposition Tamil National Alliance (TNA) MP M.A. Sumanthiran to censure President Rajapaksa, was defeated 119-68 in a deeply-divided Parliament, amidst nationwide protests demanding his resignation due to the hardships faced by the people.
With the tabling of the Motion of Displeasure, the Opposition sought to demonstrate how nationwide calls for President Rajapaksa’s resignation is reflected in the country’s 225-member legislature.
Hours earlier, the ruling Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP) won a key vote when its lawmaker, Ajith Rajapakse, was elected deputy speaker of the country’s Parliament. The Parliament was meeting for the first time since the resignation of the former Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa and the swearing-in of new Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe.
Rajapakse, 48, was elected following a secret ballot conducted in Parliament.
He secured 109 votes while Rohini Kavirathna, the nominee of the main opposition, the Samagi Jana Balawegaya (SJB), received 78 votes.
Rajapakse is not related to the ruling Rajapaksa family, but hails from the same district of Hambantota.
House Speaker Mahinda Yapa Abeywardena said 23 votes were rejected.
The post of deputy speaker had been left vacant after Ranjith Siyambalapitiya resigned from the post twice within one week in May.
The house met for the first time on Tuesday since the resignation of the former Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa and the cycle of violence in which nine people, including a parliamentarian, were killed and over 200 others injured.
Both Mahinda Rajapaksa and his son, Namal Rajapaksa were absent while Basil Rajapaksa and Shasheendra Rajapaksa, the other members of the Rajapaksa family, were present in Parliament.
Meanwhile, TNA leader Sumanthiran, who tabled the Motion of Displeasure against the President for mismanaging the island nation’s economy, slammed Prime Minister Wickremesinghe for his shameful conduct in supporting the government to defeat a motion moved by the opposition.
“The country knows who is protecting the President, and who is protesting you. Absolutely shameless conduct by the Prime Minister, and all those who sit at the government benches. But, I say the Prime Minister. Because this motion of displeasure, when it was drafted, the Prime Minister, who was in the opposition at that time, wanted to have a look at it,” said the MP.
“He has traded his principles, his policy which he publicly told this country for a Prime Minister’s job,” Sumanthiran said, a day after Wickremesinghe said his aim is to save crisis-hit Sri Lanka, and not a person, family or group, in an apparent reference to the Rajapaksa family and its former strongman, Mahinda Rajapaksa.
Responding to criticism, the United National Party (UNP), represented in Parliament solely by Wickremesinghe, has defended his vote against the opposition’s attempt to express the dissatisfaction of the house with President Gotabaya Rajajapksa’s handling of the crisis.
The UNP tweeted Tuesday that its leader, Wickremesinghe, had informed the opposition that voting to suspend Parliament’s Standing Orders was a poor parliamentary strategy.
The Prime Minister explained that protecting the Motion of Displeasure was more important than suspending Standing Orders.
He said Government MPs would use the defeat of the vote to suspend Standing Orders as an opportunity to prevent a vote on the Motion.
— UNP (@officialunp) May 17, 2022
Wickremesinghe himself tweeted later and defended his vote.
“This was not a vote on the Motion of Displeasure against the President. This was a vote to suspend all Parliament proceedings and immediately debate the Motion of Displeasure,” he tweeted as part of a long series of tweets.
5/ It would be best if the Opposition used a better strategic approach going forward. Nevertheless, wish to reaffirm our commitment to vote in favour of the motion as communicated earlier last week.#SriLanka
— Ranil Wickremesinghe (@RW_UNP) May 17, 2022
Wickremesinghe was also criticised by SJB parliamentarian Kavirathna, who lost her bid to become deputy speaker.
“The Prime Minister has become a mere puppet of the Rajapaksa family and has become a tool to carry out the Rajapaksa regime’s agenda, while the the first ever policy decision taken at the Parliament has been defeated,” she said.
In his first televised address to the nation on Monday, Wickremesinghe said the nation urgently needs $75 million of foreign currency in the next few days to pay for essential imports.
Sri Lanka’s economy has been hit hard by the pandemic, rising energy prices and populist tax cuts. A chronic shortage of foreign currency and soaring inflation had led to a severe shortage of medicines, fuel and other essentials.
The economic uncertainty also triggered a political crisis in Sri Lanka and a demand for the resignation of the powerful Rajapaksas.
On May 9, Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s elder brother Mahinda Rajapaksa resigned as Prime Minister to make way for the president to appoint an interim all-political-party government. Wickremesinghe was appointed the country’s new Prime Minister on Thursday to steer the country’s economy out of the woods.
Meanwhile, the Ministry of Education said that schools which were closed during the last week due to violence were reopened from Tuesday. The government said that with the lifting of the curfew, activities in several sectors, including transport, will resume as usual.
Train services, which were suspended, will run normally from Tuesday, the Railway Department said, indicating that the law and order situation across the island nation has returned to normal.