NOT FOR the first time in recent weeks, Sri Lankans held a collective breath on the afternoon of December 13th, as citizens gathered outside the Supreme Court in Colombo, the capital. When seven judges eventually faced the packed crowd in Room 502, their decision was unanimous: President Maithripala Sirisena had breached the constitution last month, by decreeing parliament dissolved. Outside on the street, opponents of the president roared their approval of the ruling.
As unusual as it was, the court’s slap to the country’s head of state came as no surprise. Mr Sirisena has been testing the limits of his powers ever since October 26th.
On that day he pitched his country into uncharted constitutional waters, sacking the sitting prime minister, Ranil Wickremesinghe, despite his command of a solid parliamentary majority, and appointing instead Mahinda Rajapaksa, a hugely controversial former president.
When parliament made clear that it would not support the interloper, Mr Sirisena abruptly decreed the chamber disbanded. The Supreme Court suspended that decree in November, while it pondered its legality; its latest ruling in effect voids it.
The constitution clearly states that a president may only dissolve a sitting parliament four-and-a-half years into its five-year term. This parliament has almost two years to run, which means that Mr Sirisena’s fallback strategy for getting rid of Mr Wickremesinghe, holding a snap parliamentary election, will not work any better than trying to fire him.
The ruling has cheered supporters of the ousted prime minister. But it has not moved the country much closer to resolving a constitutional snafu that has left it without a legitimate prime minister or government for two months.
Mr Sirisena, whose high-handed tactics unleashed the trouble, has said that he might negotiate a solution with the parliamentary majority, but would never again work with Mr Wickremesinghe, even if all 225 MPs back him.
Indeed, so determined is the president to see off Mr Wickremesinghe that he is thought to be considering a referendum to approve immediate elections.
Mr Wickremesinghe, for his part, proved again on December 12th that he retains a solid parliamentary majority, handily winning 117 votes in a confidence motion. This falls far short of the two-thirds majority needed to begin impeaching Mr Sirisena, however.
Instead, the president’s opponents are hoping that further embarrassing court rulings could prompt Mr Sirisena’s resignation. One of these, expected early next month, could see the Supreme Court confirming a ruling that has barred Mr Rajapaksa or his appointees from acting in any ministerial capacity.
But Mr Sirisena’s opponents may not be able to write the president off so easily. He holds command of the army and other powerful institutions, and Mr Rajapaksa enjoys a bigger popular following than does Mr Wickremesinghe—or at least he did, until the president convinced him to jump the gun on elections that he probably would have won.
Constitutionally, the president has few options. But his behaviour over the past few months suggests the constitution is not always his lodestar.