by Prof S W R de A Samarasinghe
On November 13 evening, the third branch of government, the Judiciary in the form of the Supreme Court, dealt a blow for Sri Lanka’s fragile democracy when it issued a stay order on dissolving Parliament, effective until December 07. The Election Commission will suspend all action to hold parliamentary elections on January 5. In doing so the Supreme Court signalled the importance of constituitonal governance that puts the interest of the country before partisan poltical interests. In effect this ruling also allows the Speaker to recall Parliament.
In sharp contrast, the President, who is the head of the executive branch, has been acting in the last two weeks with impunity, largely in his own self-interest. The legislative branch (parliament) has become an auction house where bribery reigns, cabinet office is made available as a bribe for partisan behaviour and self comes before country for very many MPs.
Government in limbo
The decision of the Supreme Court is not the end of the threat that has been posed to Sri Lanka’s democracy but may well be the beginning of a more perilous course. The absurd situation of two individuals claiming to be prime minister remains unresolved at the time of this writing. The Supreme Court will deliver its final verdict only on December 06th. The general administration of the country remains at least semi-paralyzed with no clear political leadership at the top.
These constituitonal battles are being fought not for the sake of constituitonal propriety but for power. From that perspective the key parties in the fight have seen their prospects change dramatically since Sirisena sacked Wickremesinghe on October 26.
In the first week Sirisena and Rajapaksa appeared to have overcome whatever objections, both local and foreign, voiced against the move. They were prepared to ignore those objections because they believed that large-scale bribery and offer of cabinet positions would induce enough MPs to crossover to assure a majority in parliament. The long-term plan was to have a government for another 12 plus months, hold the provincial council elections to consolidate power, and then go for a presidential election and parliamentary election. It appeared to be a near perfect recipe to establish a Rajapaksa political dynasty, a project that suffered a setback in 2015.
Plans go wrong
But it was soon apparent that even the best-laid plans in politics could go wrong. Rajapaksa was struggling to secure the support of 113 MPs. The first hint came when one of the crossovers, Wijedasa Rajapaksa, asserted that the President can call for a general election if the Vote-on-Account that the new government would present in parliament was defeated. Mahinda Rajapaksa also publicly stated that he would welcome a general election so that the people could decide.
The dissolution of Parliament on Friday November 9 took the public by surprise. It is not clear whether Sirisena took the decision unilaterally or he did it in agreement with Rajapaksa. Either way it looked dubious to many. It was also not a part of the script that Sirisena and Rajapaksa had in mind when they embarked on this course of action on October 26.
Shifting public mood
It became increasingly evident last week that the mood of the country was moving against Sirisena and Rajapaksa. That is not because people had much sympathy for Ranil Wickremesinghe who stands accused of incompetence and corruption.
Many people were upset that Sirisena was not being fair. A commonly heard saying in Sinhala was “Janaadhipathi katha wadak kalaa” (the President did a dirty thing). In 2015 he claimed that he risked his life to oppose Rajapaksa and many people who voted for him considered him a hero. But now many see his sudden alliance with the very same Rajapaksa as that of a man who lacks basic principles and fails to abide by the spirit of the Constitution. However, to his credit he has not attempted to interfere with the Supreme Court on this occasion. Or the Court to its credit has ignored any such attempt. The net result is a president who is beleaguered and a Rajapaksa camp that has fast lost its sense of optimism.
In contrast the UNP sees it’s once dormant and dispirited base fired up. Perhaps more importantly for the party, Sirisena and Rajapaksa have succeeded in doing something that no senior party men in the UNP could do in the last several years. That is open a window for the younger leadership-in-waiting, led by Sajith Premadasa to more or less challenge Wickremesinghe. That may brings the desired result of a change in party leadership with infusion of more young blood into the top echelons of the party. If so the country will see a new and invigorated UNP facing the next election cycle. But before that much could happen to plunge the country into even more chaos.
The following are three possible scenarios.
Scenario 1 – good final outcome likely: Parliament meets peacefully, holds a vote and installs whoever that enjoys majority support as PM. The signs are Wickremesinghe is likely to be the winner of such a battle. If so Sirisena will resign if he keeps to his word that he would not serve with Wickremesinghe. (If Premadasa is elected PM, Sirisena may use that as an excuse to justify remaining in office.) If he resigns parliament will elect one of its members to replace him to serve the balance of his tenure. But since Sirisena has demonstrated that he often breaks his promises, he may well work with Wickremesinghe, especially if Sirisena can stop more SLFP MPs from crossing over to SLPP. This scenario, if enacted, won’t dispel the current political uncertainty, but it will buy time for all stakeholders to calm down and think of the next steps.
Scenario 2 – outcome uncertain: On hearing the decision of the Supreme Court some Rajapaksa supporters are urging Sirisena to call a referendum to let the people decide whether they approve the dissolution of parliament. Article 86 of the Constitution says, “The President may, subject to the provisions of Article 85, submit to the People by Referendum any matter which in the opinion of the President is of national importance.” The reference to Article 85 may not pose an impediment to such a referendum. Such a referendum recalls J. R. Jayewardene’s infamous 1982 referendum to extend the life of the 1977 parliament by six years. Like in 1982 this time also such a referendum will be interpreted by its opponents as an attempt to subvert constituitonal governance. The political uncertainty that it will create and costs to the economy will be major negatives. In particular, if it is used as a means to continue the new cabinet under Rajapaksa, strong opposition is likely and some of the negative outcomes listed below under Scenario 3 may come to pass.
Scenario 3 – a perilous outcome likely: SLFP and SLPP boycott parliament. Sirisena ignores a parliamentary vote of support for Wickremesinghe and continues to entertain Rajapaksa and his ministers as the de facto cabinet. This is bound to provoke public protest that can lead to violence. It can also be an excuse for Sirisena to declare an Emergency and call the military to maintain law and order. In other words it would be a full-blown political crisis. In principle, it is possible for the military to tell the president in advance that it will not go out to the streets under such circumstances. That may dissuade Sirisena from taking such a course of action.
The second and especially the third scenario or some version of it will have very adverse repercussions for the country and should be avoided. On the economic side, the Military in the streets is not the way to welcome tourists for the new season. A government that violates the Constitution will definitely discourage foreign capital inflow and encourage outflow further depreciating the rupee and putting pressure on the cost of living. On the political side, it will be a significant setback for democracy and civil liberties. Foreign powers that have urged Sirisena to work in accordance with the Constitution have more or less warned him to desist from taking action that would further aggravate the situation and provoke economic retaliation against Sri Lanka. These include withdrawal of tariff concessions and cuts in foreign aid.
Religious leaders, especially the Mahanayakas, have a crucial role to play to prevent a major political catastrophe from occurring in the next few weeks. It is reported that a few days ago the Malwatta Chapter Mahanayaka had refused to see the president, presumably because the former does not agree with the action that the latter has taken in the last two weeks. That is a powerful message. The Manayakas can tell the political leaders of all parties that country comes first and that they must act to calm down the situation. Elections can be fought later after a period of peace and reflection.