COLOMBO, Sri Lanka — Lawmakers opposed to disputed Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa won control of a key committee setting Parliament's agenda during a vote Friday that dealt a severe blow to his leadership.
Sri Lanka has been in a political crisis since Oct. 26 when the president 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.
Last week, Speaker Karu Jayasuriya announced Sri Lanka had no prime minister or government after Parliament passed no-confidence motions against Rajapaksa. Both Sirisena and Rajapaksa have refused to accept the results of the motions, saying proper procedures were not followed.
When Parliament was convened on Friday, Jayasuriya announced the members of the Parliament Selection Committee as seven Rajapaksa opponents and five supporters.
Lawmakers backing Rajapaksa refused to accept the list, arguing that they run the government and therefore should have the majority on the committee according to parliamentary traditions. Opponents of Rajapaksa said they should control the committee because they have a majority in Parliament and they requested a vote.
Before the vote was taken, Wimal Weerawansa, a lawmaker supporting Rajapaksa, accused Jayasuriya of violating the parliamentary traditions and being partial to Wickremesinghe. Jayasuriya was elected to Parliament from Wickremesinghe's United National Party
"If you don't accept the prime minister and the Cabinet of ministers, we also don't accept you as the speaker of this Parliament," Weerawansa said, before walking out with others supporting Rajapaksa.
A vote was then taken by name through the electronic voting system and the opposition secured the control of the committee with 121 voting for and none against.
The results also showed that Rajapaksa does not hold a majority of the 225-member Parliament, which is a setback for his loyalists who had claimed they did.
Friday's vote was peaceful compared to two earlier votes which were conducted amid severe disturbances. Parliament turned violent when the no-confidence motions were taken up last week, with rival lawmakers exchanging blows, while lawmakers supporting Rajapaksa threw books, chairs and chili powder mixed with water to try to block the proceedings. Jayasuriya resorted to voice votes.
Rajapaksa rejected the results of the voice vote, saying important issues should not be decided by voice. He also insisted the speaker had no authority to remove him and said he is continuing to work as prime minister. Lawmakers opposed to Rajapaksa have said his government is illegal.
Jehan Perera, head of the local analyst group National Peace Council, has said that the government appointed by the president cannot be considered legal because Sirisena did not seek a parliamentary vote when he dismissed Wickremesinghe.
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.