Constitutional Crises in Sri Lanka

Photo Source: India TV

Written by Naveed Qazi | Editor, Globe UpFront

Sri Lanka slipped into chaos in October 2018 when a constitutional crisis happened in a matter of fourteen days. It was 26 October, when President Maithripala Sirisena removed Ranil Wickremesinghe and appointed Mahindra Rajapaksa as the new prime minister.

When people questioned his unconventional decision, as he sacked him without any parliamentary consultation, he defended this decision on the basis of internal stability, governance issues and accountability. He had adjourned the parliament session till November 16, giving Rajapaksa ample time to gain support. Eventually, Rajapaksa became the new prime minister and entered the official Temple Trees Residence. But this is something against democratic values because Wickremesinghe enjoyed a majority in the parliament.

As two ‘non-confidence votes’ have already passed against Rajapaksa, it seems that it is illegal for Rajapaksa to stay in power. parliament had turned violent as rivals exchanged blows when these no-confidence votes were passed. The Speaker counted votes based on voices he heard, and it seemed that the new leader failed the floor test. Lawmakers supporting Rajapaksa threw books, chairs and chilli powder mixed with water to try to block the proceedings.

During these sessions, Rajapaksa insisted that the speaker had no authority to remove him and that he is continuing his role as prime minister, as he is directly appointed by the President.

For over the years, the change in leadership in Sri Lanka has been happening through democracy. Sirisena had become President because he made an alliance with Ranil’s UNP. Had UNP not sponsored Sirisena as a candidate, he would have no way defeated Rajapaksa as the Presidential candidate. Sirisena was not a populist candidate, and nor did he belong to any major political party. Although, part of the Rajapaksa government, he got support from Ranil Wickremesinghe’s UNP and became the next President. But he ousted a prime minister from power, with whom he had agreed to work on common grounds. A political betrayal may sound like an appropriate term. This move even surprised Rajapaksa’s cadre.

According to an article by Sonia Seats in the Guardian, Sirisena has no record of being a human rights champion either, and it has not surprised the western world, because the country is notorious for its approach towards handling a sensitive ethnic conflict. With the result, the diaspora population of the Tamils has grown, and it is trying to arouse worldwide sympathy for their aspirations.

When parliamentary elections happened in 2015, Ranil was able to form the government. Both of them had promised accountability and development. But it is unfortunate that Sri Lanka has slipped into a political turmoil again. The difference between them also reflects a certain political machiavellianism.

As of now, conspiracies have happened. Many regard Ranil’s sacking as unconstitutional. It also seems that when Ranil accused India’s RAW to assassinate him, cracks appeared in the diplomacy between the two neighbouring countries, something that Sirisena was displeased with.

Rajapaksa has largely built his voter base on the Sinhala identity. It seems probable that his tenure might deepen fissures. The wounds of a brutal civil war between Tamils and Sinhalese are still afresh. What Sri Lanka needed now is a reconciliation process, but things have suddenly taken an opposite form. The UN peace process has also not triggered either.

During Rajapaksa, civil war with Tamil Tigers ended in a grotesque, the worst of its kind, in South Asia, after the calculated ethnic cleansing of Tamils, on a large scale. His tenure was also seen as one of the most corrupt, as his brothers were involved in various corruption scandals. If Rajapaksa remains in power, he will most certainly put an end to these infamous corruption cases. As of now, the military and the police officials are already paying him visits.

During his time, the relation with China had deepened and most of the corruption cases had taken place on the Chinese projects. Rajapaksa was trying to shift the diplomatic ties more towards China. But Ranil was seeking a middle path. Although, it seems that Rajapaksa, as the incumbent leader, might undo this.  

During his time, even many journalists and activists have disappeared, mainly through targeted assassinations. His tenure might incur more fear.

With the result, the minority issue of Tamils in Sri Lanka will again come up. It will also give a political mileage to regional Dravidian parties in India’s south. Quite lately, the Indian State of Tamil Nadu has condemned the capture of Tamil fishermen by Sri Lanka.  

In its ruling, the apex court said the parliament will be suspended until December 7, and it will review all the petitions filed on President Sirisena’s decision.

According to Colombo based NGO Centre for Policy Alternatives: The Supreme Court’s order is a great victory for all those forces in Sri Lanka and anywhere else in the world who believe in the constitution and free and fair functioning of a democracy. The president cannot dissolve the parliament till the court’s final orders. He can prorogue the parliament, but cannot dissolve it.”

As parliament is dissolved unexpectedly, new elections might happen soon. But supporters of Rajapaksa believe that the counting of votes was not done fairly, and it sabotaged the actual democratic process.


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