By Jayadeva Uyangoda
A major point of great significance being debated in Sri Lanka these days is the validity of the actions of Sri Lanka’s president to sack his prime minister and swear in a replacement. President has claimed a few times that his actions are entirely in accordance with the constitution. He has also clarified that prior to his action on October 26, he obtained legal advice.
President Sirisena, unlike his sacked prime minister, is not well versed with constitutional law. Therefore, it is entirely correct on his part to obtain legal clearance of his anticipated action from his advisors who posses professional background and expertise in law.
President’s lawyers seem to have advised him that it was legally correct to use the clause 42 (4) in sacking the incumbent prime minister and appointing a new person to the office of the PM.
The important question whether the Article 42 (4) under the 19th Amendment empowers the president to remove a prime minister from office at will. Since this clause is now so well known among the public, I refrain from quoting it. But, both the wording of that clause, which is a part of the 19th Amendment, and the constitutional value framework now operating in Sri Lanka do not grant the President authority to remove the prime minister from office.
It appears that the President has been advised by his legal team on the applicability Clause (42. 4) on two grounds. The first is that the interpretation ordinance enables the President to remove a prime minister from office by virtue of the fact he is the appointing authority. The second is that the overall conceptual and institutional framework of the 19th Amendment, which re-calibrated the pre-existing scheme that existed under the original 1978 Constitution as well as the 18th Amendment, is irrelevant to President’s exercise of the powers granted under this clause.
In the debate among experts so far, there is a weak argument to defend the presidential action and strong argument to question its constitutionality. The supportive arguments are based on dubious interpretations of a few clauses of the constitution, totally ignoring the explicit meanings of its clauses and the overall framework that enables the conceptual frameworks of interpretation.
The situation now is that a vital clause of the constitution is being subjected to partisan interpretation by a section of the political class that is determined to capture and retain power. For them, the constitution is a means to an end, and not an embodiment of norms and values that democratic polity and citizenry should cherish.
At times of power struggles among rival factions of the political class, what fall victims to whims and fancies, and short term agendas, of professional politicians as well lawyers are not only the words and clauses of a constitution, but also those norms and values that make the constitution relevant to the lives of ordinary citizens.
Constitution as Victim
The present power struggle makes the country’s Constitution and democratic values enshrined in it its prime victims. Therefore, it is necessary that its interpretation and the application of its clauses to controversial political circumstances caused by those who wield state power be entrusted to a wholly impartial body of men and women. Theoretically, this is the task of the Supreme Court. However, the nature of the current power struggle in Sri Lanka is such that questions have emerged whether the judiciary is the most appropriate forum to settle an essentially political dispute about power.
Since all the protagonists do not seem to be willing go to the Supreme Court seeking a determination on the constitutional questions emerged in the dispute, its resolution is left to professional politicians who continue to engage in a zero-sum power struggle.
In case the majority of MPs in parliament approves the removal of the prime minister and the appointment of the new prime minister, it would bring two other dubious possibilities to the current conundrum: (a) constructing an interpretation to a vital constitutional clause in a manner that wholly transgresses the spirit of the 19th Amendment which is still in force, and (b) creating a precedence in which no prime minister, including the person who has been freshly appointed, or a minister would be free from arbitrary dismissal by the president who can now treat all of them as mere public servants expected to be subservient to him.
This new construction will eventually create a situation where the ministers, deputy minsters and state ministers will also be under the mercy of the President as their appointing authority. It will in effect reverse the process that began in 2015 to reform Sri Lanka’s executive presidency. Is it then the case that President Sirisena is re-introducing through backdoor a key element of the old constitutional scheme of J. R. Jayewardene and Mahinda Rajapaksa?
Wouldn’t this be a harbinger to a new power struggle between the president and the new prime minister, whose understanding of political power would be very different from that of President Sirisena?
There are now rumours that parliament would be reconvened on November 05. We don’t know what compromises are being negotiated between the disputants. Let us hope that there would be a at least few MPs who would present in parliament as well as outside a sober- in-depth, and objective analysis the grave constitutional crisis the country is facing.
Even an incompletely democratic constitution is still a charter that defines the rules and limits of the conduct of political power. It is too serious a document to be left to those who are involved in a ruthless struggle for power to capture for their own ends.