ALL’S WELL that ends well, or so Shakespeare would have it, when a seeming tragedy turns into a heart-warming story of persistence and redemption.
Such was the relief that Sri Lanka felt on December 16th, as seven weeks of political turbulence ended like a summer squall. After a period when the country had first two bickering governments and then no government at all, Ranil Wickremesinghe returned to office as prime minister just as suddenly as he had been tossed out in October.
It was reassuring to see democracy prevail. After much suspense, the legislative and judicial branches joined forces to contain a dangerous lunge by President Maithripala Sirisena to expand executive power.
It was also, for many, satisfying to watch the lushly mustachioed former strongman, Mahinda Rajapaksa, exit the stage with a scowl, having failed to usurp the premiership that Mr Sirisena had tried to seize for him.
Yet as every Sri Lankan knows, the events of the past few weeks represent only one act in a much longer play.
The island of 22m remains riven with bitter divisions, economically precarious and dangerously prone to high-pitched populism. With presidential, legislative and provincial elections all due within the next two years, the current intermission will not last long.
The curtain rose on the just-concluded act on October 26th, when Mr Sirisena, chafing after three years of “cohabitation” with Mr Wickremesinghe, abruptly fired his prime minister. The two were ostensibly allies.
In 2015 the liberal-leaning Mr Wickremesinghe had given crucial backing to Mr Sirisena’s bid for the presidency. Together they formed a broad coalition that successfully ended the ten-year rule of Mr Rajapaksa, under whom the army brutally crushed a quarter-century rebellion by minority Tamils, but whose government also leant towards nepotism, repression and cronyism, and towards China rather than such traditional partners as India and the West.
At the start of his term Mr Sirisena spewed venom against Mr Rajapaksa, from whose party he had only recently split. He also enthusiastically embraced a constitutional amendment designed to trim executive powers, and so to prevent the return of a strongman president.
As time passed Mr Sirisena was known to feel growing discomfort with Mr Wickremesinghe. Not only was the prime minister a more urbane and annoyingly aloof man. His liberal United National Party (UNP) pursued a range of policies, from post-war justice and reconciliation to fiscal reforms, that angered Mr Sirisena’s prickly, nationalist followers.
Yet it still came as a shock when the president followed the sacking of Mr Wickremesinghe by swearing in Mr Rajapaksa to succeed him. More shocking still were Mr Sirisena’s antics in subsequent weeks, as it became increasingly clear that he had breached the limits that he himself had helped set to presidential power. The president first sent parliament on a holiday, reckoning that during their furlough Mr Rajapaksa would be able to win over enough UNP members to gain a majority.
When it became clear that Mr Wickremesinghe still controlled parliament, the president disbanded it, calling for a snap election, so breaking a rule that such action can only be taken four and a half years into a parliamentary term.
Even as Mr Rajapaksa’s men took over ministries and issued decrees, things began to unravel. Mr Wickremesinghe, for one, refused to quit his official residence. The country’s Supreme Court first put a hold on the dissolution of parliament, allowing it to prove repeatedly that Mr Wickremesinghe retained a majority.
Then, by seven judges to none, the court ruled the president’s act unconstitutional. Another court, meanwhile, had suspended Mr Rajapaksa’s government, and looked set to declare it invalid. Mr Sirisena, who only a week before had sworn he would never appoint Mr Wickremesinghe, even if all 225 MPs insisted on him, gave in.
There is much to cheer in this outcome. Sri Lanka’s governing institutions and civil society proved strong enough—just—to withstand an assault not just by a rogue president but by a charismatic populist skilled at stoking majoritarian Sinhalese Buddhist sentiment, and backed by big money and powerful interests, particularly in the security establishment.
Mr Rajapaksa’s return had looked increasingly likely; now he stands disgraced in the eyes of many. The crisis may also empower Mr Wickremesinghe’s government, so far lacklustre in its achievements, to push through parts of its agenda that the president has sabotaged.
But judging from backstage whispers, the next acts of the play could still be ugly. Mr Sirisena, who is now supposed to work with Mr Wickremesinghe, has accused him of wanting to “punish the servicemen who saved Sri Lanka and protect the Tamil fighters who tried to destroy it”.
Mr Rajapaksa in his resignation speech rapped his rivals as “anti-national” traitors. Henchmen blame outside meddling for their ouster, telling supporters that “certain foreign nations” siphoned millions of dollars to NGOs that interfered with national security.
Sri Lankans are used to loud, nasty politics, but this kind of talk does not fit a plot with a happy ending.