On the afternoon of October 26, parliamentarians from President Maithripala Sirisena’s Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) gathered at his official residence. They did not know the meeting would be a precursor to one of the most tangled constitutional debates in the country’s history.
Sirisena told them he was forming a new administration. He ordered a party official to give notice that the United People’s Freedom Alliance (UPFA), which includes the SLFP, is quitting the government. He then summoned his most bitter adversary, Mahinda Rajapaksa, to the venue and swore him in as Sri Lanka’s 16th prime minister. It was over in four hours.
Even supporters of Rajapaksa, the former president who had defeated the Tamil Tigers and was now an ordinary member of parliament, were baffled. What just happened? Today, for all intents and purposes, Sri Lanka has two prime ministers: Ranil Wickremesinghe and Rajapaksa. And until questions of law, constitutionality and parliamentary majority are unsnarled in one or both of two forums, the legislature and the Supreme Court, the status quo could continue.
The stalemate, involving some of the most senior politicians in power, is ugly and divisive, with betrayal thrown into the festering mix. Sirisena only won the presidency in January 2015 because diverse groups led by Wickremesinghe’s United National Party (UNP) fielded him. He had defected from Rajapaksa’s authoritarian government to contest, and hid away in a coconut estate on election night till the results confirmed his victory.
On January 9, minutes after Sirisena was sworn in, Wickremesinghe took oath as prime minister (and, again, in August 2015 after a general election). The ensuing coalition government was an uneasy one, not least because the two leaders espoused contrasting economic ideologies. Wickremesinghe backs free-market capitalism while Sirisena is of a socialist bent. But for two years, at least, it hobbled along.
The 19th amendment to the constitution pruned the powers of the presidency and precluded the president from dissolving parliament for the first four-and-a-half years and took away his powers to sack the prime minister. But it was citing this very law that Sirisena, calling himself the appointing authority, notified Wickremesinghe of his removal.
The move has triggered a heated constitutional discussion. Never has the 19th amendment been so closely read, dissected or interpreted. Wickremesinghe’s camp has stayed consistent. It insists the president can no longer sack a premier. The position falls vacant only if its holder resigns or ceases to be an MP. So Wickremesinghe wrote back, reaffirming his role as the country’s constitutionally appointed prime minister who commanded the confidence of the majority of parliamentarians. This position is backed by the likes of the Tamil National Alliance (TNA), which has 16 MPs. Our parliamentary group unanimously agrees that what happened was unconstitutional and illegal, says Mathiaparanam Sumanthiran, MP.
In the Sirisena/ Rajapaksa camp, the arguments have been evolving. Wickremesinghe was dismissed under a provision allowing the president to appoint as prime minister the MP who, in the president’s opinion, is most likely to command the confidence of parliament. But there was no proof Wickremesinghe had lost this privilege. In April 2018, he defeated a no-confidence motion against him by a significant majority.
A key argument made by the Sirisena camp is of a word’s difference in the English and Sinhala versions of the 19th amendment. The English text speaks of a prime minister no longer holding office due to death, resignation or otherwise. The Sinhala text states death, resignation or removal.
Wickremesinghe has chosen not to have these technicalities hammered out in the Supreme Court.
The overwhelming demand, supported by civil society, international organisations, citizen groups and several countries, including the US and UK, has been for parliament to be summoned so it can determine who does hold the confidence of the House. An external affairs ministry spokesperson in New Delhi said on October 29 that India hoped democratic values and the constitutional process will be respected.
But Sirisena, who prorogued the legislature till November 16 soon after installing Rajapaksa as premier, has resisted all these calls. The question nobody has yet convincingly answered is this: Why now? A presidential poll was due in January 2020, followed by a general election in August the same year. Growing anti-incumbency combined with economic difficulties on multiple fronts would, many analysts felt, have favoured a strong performance by a Sirisena/ Rajapaksa front.
A new party floated by Rajapaksa, called the Sri Lanka People’s Front, outperformed the UNP and the SLFP at local government elections in February. And anger was growing at the administration’s stubborn postponement of provincial polls.
If that was too long to wait, the government could have been defeated in November when the second reading of the budget was to have been voted on. But that presupposes that the UPFA, and whoever its allies may be, had sufficient numbers in parliament to challenge the Wickremesinghe-led administration. And what is clear now is that they never did. (There will be no budget either, only a vote-on-account.)
That, says Mangala Samaraweera, whose finance ministry portfolio was given on October 29 to Rajapaksa, is where Sirisena’s gamble faltered. The president, he feels, promised his new prime minister the backing of 113 MPs in the 225-member assembly. But it is only now that the serious horse-trading has started.
So far, five of the UNP’s 106 members have defected for ministerial posts and, it is alleged, money. Many more are needed to boost the UPFA’s camp, 95-strong at the start of the crisis, particularly as the UNP also has the backing of parties like the TNA and Sri Lanka Muslim Congress.
Thrown into the equation is a bizarre, alleged assassination plot. In recent weeks, Sirisena appears to have been convinced that there was a conspiracy to kill him and Gotabaya, Rajapaksa’s brother, the former secretary of defence. After blocking moves to hand over management control of a strategic terminal in the Colombo port to an Indian company, he claimed at a cabinet meeting that India’s intelligence agency, the Research and Analysis Wing (R&AW), was involved in the plot and accused Wickremesinghe of not taking the threat to his life seriously.
Sirisena has moved swiftly to swear in a small cabinet, leaving some key jobs open for possible defectors. He has filled key posts with his or Rajapaksa’s henchmen and loyalists. And Sirisena has tried to chase Wickremesinghe from his official residence by cutting security and taking away his cooks, cleaners and drivers.
But it is hard to see how the president can emerge with any personal or political credibility from this crisis, even if he trumps the technicalities. Even among the diplomatic community, only China, which stands to benefit from a pro-Beijing Rajapaksa administration, has given the new dispensation any form of recognition.
The outlook now for a country struggling under heavy debt, Rs 1.9 trillion worth of it was maturing at the end of this year alone, is bleak. Investment was flagging, and the political instability caused by last week’s unexpected events does not inspire confidence. Moody’s Investors Service has warned that fiscal and current account deficits will widen again, reducing investor appetite for debt and spurring capital outflows.
There are also worries about the mercurial Sirisena’s next moves. From within his presidential bubble, he has resisted any form of counsel from pro-democracy lobbies. The army commander has said the military will keep out of it. But it is feared this option will be explored if the requirement to block parliament should arise. The legal vacuum within, which the apparatuses of the public sector are operating, is also of concern. This situation is unprecedented and nobody but the president seems to wield any power.
Rajapaksa now also looks the worse for wear. During the end of his second presidential term, he was criticised for being dictatorial and power-hungry. For his critics, this has only proved the leopard doesn’t change its spots. Or, for that matter, its style of governance.
Courtesy: India Today