By Meera Srinivasan
The Rajapaksa administration has lost public confidence, going by citizens’ persistent calls for the resignation of President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa and their government. However, neither of the ruling brothers appears inclined to step down, and Mr. Gotabaya’s move appointing a new Cabinet, without three other Rajapaksas [two of his brothers and a nephew], has made little difference to the protesters.
They continue agitating day after day, near the sea–facing Presidential Secretariat and outside the Prime Minister’s official and private homes, braving the scorching sun, thunderstorms and police barricades put up to deter them. The protests have only intensified in recent weeks as citizens struggle to find or afford essentials such as cooking gas, fuel, food, and medicines, amid severe shortages and inflation — a record 21.5 % in March 2022.
In two critical initiatives this month, Colombo announced a default on its near–$51 billion foreign loans and held talks with the International Monetary Fund in DC for support in ‘restructuring’ its debt. The Fund said its technical discussions with the Sri Lankan delegation were ‘fruitful’ and promised to “support Sri Lanka’s efforts” to overcome the current economic crisis, but it is yet to spell out the actual extent or nature of assistance through a possible structural adjustment programme. It may take weeks, or even months, for the IMF package to materialise, according to experts.
Governance has come to a virtual halt as the ruling coalition begins to fall apart, pushing Sri Lanka into an unusual political stalemate. The two leaders stubbornly remain in office, and their government is not just tainted but also fractured, with lawmakers divided in their loyalties between the two brothers.
Early in April, the government lost its formidable parliamentary majority when some 40 MPs sat separately in the legislature. Another group of ruling MPs is pressuring President Gotabaya to sack his brother, appoint an interim government with a non–Rajapaksa as Premier. But Mr. Mahinda, the most seasoned politician of the ruling camp and its original political mascot, is clearly resisting.
In the first sure sign of a rift between the powerful siblings, Mr. Mahinda on April 19 proposed clipping presidential powers, in turn empowering Parliament, as a “short–term” response to the crisis. This was a day after the PM stayed away from the swearing in of the “new Cabinet” at the President’s office.
Mr. Mahinda’s statement in Parliament was an obvious attempt to shift the regime’s power centre from the Executive to the Prime Minister and more specifically, from his younger brother Mr. Gotabaya to himself, less than two years after his powers were diluted in the government’s passage of the 20th Amendment.
That Mr. Gotabaya will not be simply a spectator in such a process became apparent in his response to the Buddhist clergy who raised concern over the crisis. “I would support the repealing of the 20th Amendment to the Constitution, which you have mentioned, if any action is taken in Parliament in this regard, and would like to kindly remind you that such an amendment should be made jointly by the President and Parliament,” he said in the April 25 letter to the religious leaders, who wield considerable political clout.
Mr. Mahinda’s office has said the parliamentary group of the ruling Sri Lanka Podu Jana Peramuna (SLPP or People’s Front) ‘unanimously’ backs his leadership, even as some rebel government MPs signal willingness to join ranks with the Opposition to vote against their PM in a trust vote. All Opposition parties have rejected the President’s offer to join him in an interim, all–party government. How will Sri Lanka address this political deadlock? The Hindu spoke to MPs in government and the Opposition.
Nalaka Godahewa, Media Minister, said: “I think we need an inclusive Cabinet with members from all factions in Parliament to address this crisis. I offered to resign to make way for others, but the President did not accept my resignation,” he said. “I have nothing against the Prime Minister.” A new arrangement is in the interest of “political stability, which is crucial to addressing the economic crisis”, according to Mr. Godahewa.
Former Health Minister Keheliya Rambukwella, who quit with his Cabinet colleagues on April 3, said it was important to “put the country’s interest first” and arrest any further economic deterioration. All former and current government MPs must “sit together, discuss, and find a way out”. In his view, Mr. Mahinda’s suggestion of reducing presidential powers is a “good temporary measure” before a new Constitution is readied.
Underplaying the divide between the President and the PM, Mr. Rambukwella said: “It is no serious conflict. We promised a new Constitution in our manifesto. We must get together and work on that, while assuring citizens that we will investigate the allegations facing the government. That alone can send out a strong message to IMF, World Bank, ADB and other lending agencies,” he said.
Harsha de Silva, lawmaker from the main Opposition party Samagi Jana Balawegaya (SJB or United People’s Force), said his party was ‘confident’ of securing a majority, in the event of an No Confidence Motion again the government. The SJB, along with other Opposition parties, has about 70 seats, and will need the support of government deserters to muster a simple majority of 113 votes in the 225–member House. The party doesn’t seem to be in a hurry to table a trust vote.
“We must remember that the main demand of the people is ‘Gota go home’. The broader interpretation of that is the President’s unfettered powers must go,” he said, laying out options that his party is exploring — a constitutional amendment reducing presidential powers, broadly similar to the one suggested by Mr. Mahinda. Further, Leader of the Opposition Sajith Premadasa has called for the abolition of Executive Presidency and the party has submitted a proposal for it to Parliament through a private member’s Bill.
“The people’s overwhelming call is to dislodge the Rajapaksas. As Opposition we have to be mindful of that. We are looking at different constitutional, legal options, and the best possible time to take them forward. We cannot let the situation descend into chaos, we must act responsibly,” Mr. de Silva said.
Trust vote or impeachment
M.A. Sumanthiran, Opposition MP from Jaffna, and senior constitutional lawyer, whose advice both Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa and the Opposition have sought on constitutional amendments needed to empower Parliament, said the call of the people on the streets is “very clear”. “It is ‘Gota go home’. It means that they identify him as the primary, and most proximate cause for the economic downturn,” he said, recalling Mr. Gotabaya’s decision to implement wide tax cuts just after his election in 2019.
“His move brought down the government’s tax revenue at least by 25% and exempted nearly a third of our taxpayers from paying any tax. The economy’s downward spiral began months after that, as we were shut out from the international money market where we were downgraded. We couldn’t borrow anymore to repay other loans as Sri Lanka had done in the past. So, the protesters’ call for his resignation is fully justifiable. They want him and the government to step down – that is the political reality.”
The government “must realise” that political stability lies “not merely in numbers” in the House — 113 to show a simple majority in the Sri Lankan Parliament — but also in having “the trust” of citizens, he contended.
Despite the obvious erosion of that public trust and confidence, the President refuses to step down. This political deadlock, while citizens’ protests continue, will likely deter external creditors and partners that the government has sought help from, government critics argue.
On the other hand, it is not easy to oust a President in Sri Lanka. Legislatively, if the Opposition were to move a No–Confidence Motion against the government, it could at best result in the stepping down of the Prime Minister and the Cabinet. The President will remain untouched.
“With the Opposition refusing to be part of any interim arrangement under Mr. Gotatabaya Rajapaksa’s Presidency, that would only mean a reshuffling of the existing cabinet, basically a game of musical chairs. The protesting citizens will not accept that. So, the NCM against the government is limited in scope and even futile in this context, because what the people are asking is for the President to step down,” Mr. Sumanthiran said.
There is one more instrument available in the legislature to oust a President — an impeachment motion. It will need a parliamentary majority, contingent on the Speaker’s discretion to entertain such a motion or a two–thirds majority in the House. Either way, it must be followed by a Supreme Court inquiry into the charges against the President by those calling for his impeachment. “It is a long drawn out process that could take upto a year or two, and therefore cannot respond to the urgency of the current situation.”
Another unconventional suggestion has come from former Secretary to the Ministry of Justice and legal scholar Nihal Jayawickrama, who has mooted an NCM against the President. Though the Constitution does not provide for this, under Article 42 of the Constitution the President, as Head of Government, is responsible to Parliament, and nothing explicitly prohibits the House from voting on such a motion. While its passage has no legal consequence under the Constitution, Mr. Sumanthiran said it would result in “enormous moral pressure” on the President.
“He will realise that his presidency is no more tenable — he doesn’t have people’s backing anymore, and Parliament to which he’s responsible too, echoes that sentiment. In a way, as elected representatives of the people we would be translating their resounding call ‘Gota go home’ to legislative action. It would give parliamentary expression to people’s demand and quantify it through votes in the House. Even then the President stepping down would not be a strictly legal requirement, but the President cannot ignore such an emphatic assertion of democratic principles,” he said.
Observing that the main Opposition has won some support for its recent move towards the abolition of the Executive Presidency, Mr. Sumanthiran said pushing an NCM against the President will “help redeem at least some of its members and gain confidence among the protesting people, who have not expressed much faith in the opposition so far”.