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Top Sri Lanka court rules against president's snap election plan

Colombo

SRI LANKA'S top court ruled against President Maithripala Sirisena's plan to dissolve the island nation's parliament and call a new national vote, extending a political crisis that has roiled the country since late October.

The Supreme Court on Thursday ruled as unconstitutional a presidential notice to dissolve Parliament before a period of four-and-a-half years from its first sitting unless the move was endorsed by a two-third majority of Parliament. The verdict means Mr Sirisena's order for parliamentary elections on Jan 5 is also void.

The key court decision comes after Mr Sirisena abruptly sacked Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe and replaced him with former President Mahinda Rajapaksa on Oct 26. The court's order puts further pressure on Mr Sirisena to reinstate Mr Wickremesinghe, who had served since 2015 in a unity government with the president.

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Sri Lanka's dollar bonds due in 2028 rose the most since Dec 3, increasing 0.5 cent to about 90 cents, according to prices compiled by Bloomberg.

"This is a victory for the people," Eran Wickramaratne, a state minister of finance under Mr Wickremesinghe, said. "We expect the president now to reappoint Ranil Wickremesinghe as prime minister."

It was not immediately clear what supporters of Mr Rajapaksa, who have previously caused chaos in Parliament as they defended the former strongman, would do following the court's decision.

"Even though we do not agree, there is no court to go beyond this," said Namal Rajapaksa, a Sri Lankan lawmaker and son of the former president. "We will take a decision as a group."

Mr Sirisena's actions have been strongly criticised by countries including the US, while the political crisis has led to Moody's, Fitch Ratings and S&P Global Ratings to downgrade the nation's credit rating.

"The court's decision is a check on the power of the president, now and in the future, which is important," said Jehan Perera, executive director of the National Peace Council of Sri Lanka. "But the issue is Sirisena refusing to reappoint Wickremesinghe, which means the court decision won't legally change the deadlock. But it could put political and moral pressure on him to back off."

Sri Lanka's Court of Appeal on Dec 3 issued an interim order preventing Mr Rajapaksa and his ministers from exercising powers until it hears a petition challenging their authority.

Lawmakers opposing Mr Rajapaksa had already voted on Nov 29 to freeze his office's spending - and the salaries of all ministers in his government - in a bid to crimp the new government's ability to implement policies. That was the third straight parliamentary vote to go against the former president, who ruled between 2005 and 2015.

Mr Sirisena originally suspended Parliament, then tried to dissolve the legislature entirely for fresh elections - a move that was blocked by the Supreme Court to decide on its legality.

Mr Sirisena had said he would be willing to appoint a new leader from Mr Wickremesinghe's party, but won't reappoint his former prime minister even if all 225 members of Sri Lanka's Parliament endorsed it.

On Wednesday 117 lawmakers voted in favour of Mr Wickremesinghe to pass a resolution showing that he commanded the confidence of Parliament to function as prime minister.

Mr Rajapaksa, a former leader who has previously taken billions in Chinese loans, had rejected the appeal court's ruling and called for general elections to end the impasse. Allies of Mr Rajapaksa have boycotted Parliament and accuse the house speaker of favouring Mr Wickremesinghe.

On Dec 4, Mr Sirisena met with top bureaucrats and told them to "fulfil their respective duties and responsibilities" without disruption while the prime minister and Cabinet were prevented by the court from carrying out their work. That same day, Mr Wickremesinghe said that he was willing to face an election, but it must be conducted with the legitimate government in place.

"This has been a constitutional coup," said Anura Kumara Dissanayaka, a lawmaker for the Marxist Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna party, which submitted the first no-confidence vote against Mr Rajapaksa. "The Supreme Court has taken an important step."  BLOOMBERG