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Sri Lankan lawmakers bar disputed PM from using state funds

Sri Lanka's disputed Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa, gestures as he arrives for a meeting with his supporting law makers at the parliamentary complex in Colombo, Sri Lanka, Thursday, Nov. 29, 2018. Sri Lankan lawmakers have approved a motion barring Rajapaksa from using state funds after he was defeated in a no confidence vote. (AP Photo/Eranga Jayawardena)

COLOMBO, Sri Lanka (AP) — Sri Lankan lawmakers on Thursday approved a motion barring disputed Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa from using state funds after he lost two no-confidence votes, in an escalation of the country’s political crisis.

The motion was passed with 123 votes in the 225-member Parliament as Rajapaksa supporters boycotted the proceedings for a third day, accusing Speaker Karu Jayasuriya of bias and breaching parliamentary rules.

The passage of the motion was a setback for Rajapaksa because it demonstrated that a majority of lawmakers oppose the former strongman, who ruled Sri Lanka as president from 2005 to 2015.

Sri Lanka has been in a political crisis since Oct. 26, when President Maithripala Sirisena abruptly fired Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe and appointed Rajapaksa. Both claim to be the legitimate officeholder, with Wickremesinghe saying he has majority support in Parliament and his firing was invalid. Rajapaksa has moved into the prime minister’s office, while Wickremesinghe has refused to leave the premier’s official residence.

Parliament has passed two no-confidence motions against Rajapaksa and the speaker has declared that Rajapaksa is no longer prime minister and his government has been dissolved. But Rajapaksa continues to function as prime minister with the backing of Sirisena, who has dismissed the no-confidence votes, saying proper procedures were not followed.

Ravi Karunanayake, a lawmaker from Wickremesinghe’s party who presented the motion, said Parliament has full control over public finance and the secretary to the prime minster has no authority to approve any expenditures from state funds.

Dinesh Gunawardena, a member of Rajapaksa’s purported Cabinet, said his camp refuses to accept Thursday’s vote. He said since a budget has already been approved for this year with allocations for the prime minister’s office, any amendment to it needs to be brought in the form of a law by a government minister. He said it is also unlawful to debate a matter that is before a court.

The Court of Appeal has agreed to hear a petition challenging the right of Rajapaksa and his ministers to hold office after the no-confidence votes.

“Parliament has full and exclusive control over public funds. The government cannot spend a cent of public revenue without the authorization of Parliament,” said Asanga Welikala, a constitutional expert at the Center for Policy Alternatives think tank.

However, the vote may only be symbolic because Gunawardena’s contention that an approved budget needs to be changed by law is technically valid, he said.

“In a context of contested legitimacy and authority, even symbolic acts by Parliament to demonstrate its lack of confidence in the purported government are very powerful,” Welikala said.

During the no-confidence motions two weeks ago, rival lawmakers exchanged blows, and those supporting Rajapaksa threw books, chairs and chili powder mixed with water to try to block the proceedings. Amid the disturbance, Jayasuriya resorted to voice votes.

Both Sirisena and Rajapaksa rejected the results of the votes, saying important issues should not be decided by voice. Sirisena has said he will only accept a vote taken by name or through the electronic voting system.

Sirisena served as health minster when Rajapaksa was president. In 2014, he joined hands with opposition parties and defeated Rajapaksa in the 2015 presidential election. His decision to appoint Rajapaksa as prime minister astonished many.

Rajapaksa is considered a hero by some in the ethnic Sinhalese majority for ending a long civil war by crushing ethnic Tamil Tiger rebels. However, his time in power was marred by allegations of wartime atrocities, corruption and nepotism.

Tensions had been building between Sirisena and Wickremesinghe for some time, as the president did not approve of economic reforms introduced by the prime minister. Sirisena has also accused Wickremesinghe and another Cabinet member of plotting to assassinate him, a charge Wickremesinghe has repeatedly denied.

On Sunday, Sirisena said he will not appoint Wickremesinghe as prime minister even if he controls a majority in Parliament.

Wickremesinghe’s party has criticized Sirisena’s stance, saying he should act within the constitution and that it does not provide for personal vendettas.

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Associated Press writer Krishan Francis contributed to this report.

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