Sri Lanka’s disputed prime minister resigns - with a smile - to end political impasse

Sri Lanka’s disputed Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa signs his resignation letter at his residence in Colombo Credit: Eranga Jayawardena/AP

Sri Lanka’s disputed prime minister resigned with a smile on Saturday, saying he wanted to end a long political impasse over his appointment and allow the president to form a new government.

Mahinda Rajapaksa signed a letter of resignation at his residence in Colombo, flanked by members of his party and blessed by Buddhist and other religious leaders in the presence of the media.

It was not immediately clear if the letter had been handed over to President Maithripala Sirisena.

Sri Lanka’s disputed prime minister, Mahinda Rajapaksa, greets religious leaders before signing his resignation letter at his residence in Colombo Credit: Eranga Jayawardena/AP

Mr Rajapaksa said in a statement: “Since I have no intention of remaining as prime minister without a general election being held, and in order to not hamper the president in any way, I will resign from the position of prime minister and make way for the president to form a new government.”

He was to deliver an address to the nation later on Saturday in which he was expected to explain his resignation.

Lakshman Yapa Abeywardena, a politician close to Mr Rajapaksa, told reporters on Friday that Mr Rajapaksa had decided to step down to end a crisis that began in October when Mr Sirisena sacked prime minister Ranil Wickremesinghe.

Mr Sirisena then named Mr Rajapaksa the new premier, but Parliament twice rejected the appointment.

Mr Rajapaksa’s resignation came a day after the Supreme Court extended a lower court’s suspension of him and his Cabinet.

The top court put off the next hearing until mid-January, when it plans to rule on whether they should hold office after losing two no-confidence votes in Parliament.

Mahinda Rajapaksa speaks with a Buddhist monk after signing his resignation letter Credit: Eranga Jayawardena/AP

Sri Lanka has had no functioning government for nearly two weeks and is facing the prospect of being unable to pass a budget for next year if a new government is not appointed quickly.

The country runs the risk of being unable to use state funds from January 1 if there is no government to approve the budget.

It also has a foreign debt repayment of 1 billion US dollars (£794 million) due in early January, and it is unclear if it can be serviced without a lawful finance minister.

Mr Rajapaksa is a former strongman president who is considered by some as a war hero for defeating the Tamil Tiger rebels in 2009 after a long civil war. But he lost a 2015 re-election bid amid allegations of wartime atrocities, corruption and nepotism.

After his appointment as prime minister, he sought to secure a majority in the 225-member Parliament but failed. Mr Sirisena then dissolved Parliament and called new elections, but the Supreme Court struck down the move as unconstitutional.

Mr Sirisena has repeatedly rejected appeals to reappoint Mr Wickremesinghe as prime minister, but has invited Mr Wickremesinghe, who has the support of 117 politicians in Parliament, to form a government.