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Mainstream, VOL LVI No 46 New Delhi November 3, 2018

Sri Lanka: Let Parliament Express Its Will

Saturday 3 November 2018

by Mohan K. Tikku

It has been a time of great political uncertainty in Sri Lanka since Friday (October 26) when President Mathripala Sirisena announced the appointment of former President Mahinda Rajapakse as the new Prime Minister of the island-nation. He did this after summarily sacking incumbent Prime Minister Ranil Wickramasinghe from the post. Under the Sri Lankan Constitution, the President as the executive head of state and government enjoys untrammelled powers that even exceed those of the French or American presidencies. It is not the President’s powers that are in question here. It is the propriety of appointing someone who had been trounced in the 2015 election leading to Sirisena himself becoming the President. That election had been seen by many as an opportunity to open a new chapter in the history of Sri Lankan democracy. That was after the country had been through a lacerating war against the LTTE, accompanied by muscular governance and widespread rights violations, particularly affecting the Tamil civilians. So, one would be entitled to see President Sirisena’s latest decision as a bit of a turnaround.

The most obvious thing after the announcement of the President’s decision would have been to summon Parliament and have the new Prime Minister confirmed in his office. But Sirisena could not afford to do that. The elephant in the room was the fact that Wickramasinghe’s United National Party was still the single largest party in the House.

If the President had expected that Ranil Wickramasinghe would start losing support after he lost his job, this has not happened—at least not in the first few days. Wickaramsinghe has continued to enjoy the support of the 106 ruling party members in the House. In fact, some of the smaller parties have backed the majority United National Party in seeking a course correction. Altogether, a total of 126 members (that makes it a clear majority in the 225-member House) have demanded that the Parliament, which had been suspended till November 16 by the President, be summoned immediately to test if the newly appointed Prime Minister enjoyed majority support in the House.

This constitutional conundrum has been further complicated by the fact that the Parliament Speaker, Karu Jayasuriya, has fully backed Wickramasinghe. That leaves Sri Lanka with two claimants to the Prime Minister’s post. Wickramasinghe has sought to demonstrate his support base by organising rallies in protest against the presidential decision. Speakers at some of the rallies have threatened violence if a prime ministerial nominee was thrust on the country from above by displacing the one duly elected.

Despite the fact that Wickramasinghe at present seems to have the numbers on his side, it may be a mistake to underestimate the talents of his rival. For one thing, Rajapakse is no quitter. He has already started inducting some UNP members into the new Cabinet. During his previous tenure as the President, Rajapakse had at one time appointed every Member of Parliament on his side as a Minister. At one point, it had become difficult to find enough ministerial designations for all of them. There even were instances when more than one Minister carried the same designation. That was his way of ensuring that his flock remained intact. At that time, Rajapakse had somewhat cynically remarked that it did not cost the government too much to appoint another Minister. All it took was a higher pay packet, a bigger car and a few other perks. All very affordable. Few people in Sri Lanka are as adept at manipulating the system to one’s advantage as Rajapakse.

Moreover, he enjoys a degree of goodwill among the armed forces and the police. He is someone who is seen as a bit of a ‘war hero’ by the forces. They in turn had enjoyed a lot of leeway in civilian administration during his presidency. Equally predictably, Rajapakse is known to be in the good books of the Chinese. After all, it was during his presidency that the Chinese enlarged their Sri Lankan footprint all the way from Hambantota seaport to the Matale airport and much besides. It was quite understandable, therefore, that the Chinese rushed to welcome the appointment of the new Prime Minister.

On his part, Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapakse has promised early elections to the nine Provincial Councils, followed by parliamentary elections at a later date—which in any case are due in early 2020. But most political parties see the elections as a ruse to shift attention away from the immediate constitutional crisis.

Ranil Wickramasinghe, on the other hand, has sought to enlarge the debate by committing himself to constitutional reform. That involves changing the presidential system and replacing it with the Westminster style parliamentary system. There is nothing unique about this demand as several of his predecessors too have made such commitments in the past, only to dump them later. Many Sri Lankans see the current presidential constitutional system as the main source of flawed functioning of Sri Lankan democracy.

If the crisis persists, it is likely to affect the working of the democratic institutions in Sri Lanka. The other big losers in this game would be the Tamils. They have been hoping that their long-pending grievances would be addressed by Colombo. Despite umpteen promises, successive governments have dithered on delivering on them. These relate to devolution of powers to the Tamil majority northern and eastern provinces, and rendering justice to the Tamil victims of the war. The Sri Lankan Government has already been under some pressure from the international community, as well as the United Nations, to ensure that some accountability is introduced and justice done to the people whose human and other rights were violated in the course of winning the war against the Tamil Tigers.

To many observers of the Sri Lankan scene, these developments are not good news for the working of democratic institutions in the island-nation. To them, it seems a pity that all this should be happening in a country that has had the longest experience, historically, of working the democratic institutions in the South Asian region.

As the recent developments in neighbouring Maldives have demonstrated, the affirmation of the will of the people should be the ultimate litmus test and the way out of a sticky situation. In the Sri Lankan case, this could be done best by letting Parliament express its will through a vote when the suspension of Parliament ends on November 16. That, probably, may be one way out of the constitutional quagmire that Sri Lanka currently finds itself in.

Journalist and author, Mohan K. Tikku has served as a foreign correspondent in Sri Lanka. After the Fall: Sri Lanka in Victory and War (OUP) is his most recent book on the subject.

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