Avoiding a resolution to Sri Lanka’s political crisis through Parliament, President Maithripala Sirisena late on Friday dissolved the House. The move came just hours after his political front admitted to lacking the majority needed for its controversially installed Prime Minister to be declared legitimate.
Issuing an extraordinary gazette, Mr. Sirisena dismissed the 225-member assembly with effect from midnight, and called for a snap general election on January 5, 2019.
The development comes a fortnight into Sri Lanka’s unprecedented power struggle that saw two rival leaders claiming to be the legitimate Prime Minister.
Caught in a bitter tussle with his Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe, with whom he joined hands to form the government in 2015, Mr. Sirisena sacked him abruptly on October 26 and appointed former President Mahinda Rajapaksa in his place.
The move drew considerable domestic and international criticism for its apparent defiance of the Constitution. Mr. Wickremesinghe refused to accept the decision and sought a vote in the House to test who commanded its confidence. However, days before Parliament — earlier suspended — was scheduled to reconvene, Mr. Sirisena announced its dissolution.
UNP for legal challenge
Following the announcement, Mr. Wickremesinghe’s United National Party (UNP) convened an “emergency meeting”.
“We are certainly challenging this in court,” senior UNP politician Mangala Samarweera, who was Finance Minister in the government that fell, told The Hindu.
Irrespective of the outcome, the party would also move an impeachment motion against the President, Mr. Samaraweera said, “because he is a menace to the country, a menace to our democratic traditions.”
The UNP was “ready to face election any time”, but felt the need to challenge the dissolution which is “a blatant violation of the Constitution,” he said.
Validity under cloud
While the political logic of the President’s move is evident in the absence of a parliamentary majority for his front, its constitutional validity is questionable. As per the 19th Amendment to Sri Lanka’s Constitution, the President does not have the powers to dissolve Parliament within four-and-a-half years of its convening, unless requested by two-thirds of its members.
The President’s legal team, on the other hand, has invoked Article 33(2) c, which lists the powers to summon, prorogue and dissolve Parliament, in addition to existing powers. However, critics observe that while the article is a general enumeration of his powers, the specific provision in the 19th Amendment must prevail.
Asked if Sri Lanka’s Election Commission would seek the Supreme Court’s opinion on the matter, ahead of elections, Commission Chairman Mahinda Deshapriya told The Hindu: “No comments.” However, he added: “The President has the powers to fix the date for elections in his proclamation.”
All the same, pressed on the Commission’s position on holding polls when the announcement follows a controversial move, Mr. Deshapriya said: “The Commission will discuss it.”
Earlier on Friday, Sri Lanka’s purported new government said it had “104 or 105” MPs in the 225-member House, in a public admission of lacking majority in the House. Addressing a press conference at the Prime Minister’s office — which Mr. Rajapaksa took over after his disputed appointment — spokesman of the Sirisena-Rajapaksa front Keheliya Rambukwella said, “We have about 105 now”, contradicting Mr. Sirisena’s claim last week of “having the majority”.
Mr. Rajapaksa, who sought early general election even while in opposition, said in a tweet: “As leaders, it is our responsibility and obligation to give the people the opportunity to voice their opinions on the future of #SriLanka.
A general election will truly establish the will of the people and make way for a stable country.” By Friday evening, President Sirisena had sworn in virtually the entire “new cabinet”, that included senior aides of Mr. Rajapaksa and himself in key Ministerial positions.