The tussle between Wickremesinghe and Rajapaksha has thrown Sri Lanka in a political, constitutional and economic crisis.
On the eve of October 26, the island nation of Shri Lanka witnessed an unprecedented development. In a dramatic sequence of events, Shri Lankan President Maithripala Sirisena appointed former President Mahinda Rajapaksa as the Prime Minister of the nation while the ousted Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe was on a tour of southern Shri Lanka. The live broadcast of President Sirisena swearing-in the new Prime Minister Rajapaksha in a show of power was no less than a high-pitch political drama potent of unsettling the geopolitics of South-east Asia. Rajapaksa was sworn in at about 7 p.m. in the presence of the representatives of the navy, air force and army who stood in the room and quietly watch the hasty ceremony unfold.
The situation in Sri Lanka, now widely regarded as a “major constitutional crisis”, has been since deteriorating. Many cabinet ministers strongly objected to the President’s decision to appoint new Prime Minister as an “undemocratic coup”. Finance Minister Mangala Samaraweera tweeted that Mr Rajapaksa’s appointment was “unconstitutional and illegal. This is an anti-democratic coup.”
— Mangala Samaraweera (@MangalaLK) October 26, 2018
On the other hand, Wickremesinghe has refused to budge and step down from the post of Prime Minister. He addressed the media in Colombo, a few hours after Mahinda Rajapaksa was sworn in as Prime Minister and declared that he is still the Prime Minister of the country. “Since I have a majority I remain as the Prime Minister and I will function as the Prime Minister,” he said.
Meanwhile, as the news spread the protestors stormed the nation’s capital. The supporters of both leaders Rajapaksha and Wickremesinghe staged a protest against each other in a display of power. The tension escalated on Sunday as one person was killed by the bodyguard of the Petroleum Minister Arjun Ranatunga after a scuffle broke out between Ranatunga’s security personnel and the supporters of Rajapaksha who tried to lay a siege at his office building.
With the suspension of the parliament by President Sirisena until November 16, the chances of restoring political stability in the country soon are bleak.
Why did President Sirisena unseat Wickremesinghe?
A day after swearing-in the Mahinda Rajapaksa as the Prime Minister, President Sirisena conducted a televised address justifying his act. He said that in the wake of recent political developments the only alternative he was left with to establish a new government was to appoint Mahinda Rajapaksa as Prime Minister.
Sirisena blamed the political crisis on Ranil Wickremesinghe’s “stubborn decisions” and the fundamental differences between him and Wickremesinghe. “There was also a policy conflict between Hon. Ranil Wickremesinghe and me, during the last three and a half years. Apart from policy differences, I noted that there were also differences of culture between Mr Wickremesinghe and me. I believe that all those differences in policy, culture, personality and conduct aggravated this political and economic crisis,” he said.
Defending his decision as “constitutional”, Sirisena said that the appointment of Mahinda Rajapaksa as Prime Minister was totally in accordance with the Constitution and on the advice of legal experts. He further blamed Wickremesinghe’s lackadaisical approach towards an investigation into the plot to assassinate the President for his decision to unseat him. “Under these political problems, economic troubles and the strong plot to assassinate me, the only alternative open to me was to invite former President Mahinda Rajapaksa and appoint him as Prime Minister to form a new government,” Sirisena clarified.
Interestingly, during the Presidential election in 2015, Sirisena had sought the support of political rival Wickremesinghe’s UNP to contest election against Mahinda Rajapaksa. Sirisena had held a cabinet berth in Rajapaksha’s government that lasted for 10 years.
What does the Sri Lankan constitution say?
While Sirisena calls the move completely “in accordance with the constitution”, his opponents and media outlets have constantly highlighted that his act is anti-constitution. Sirisena has pointed to another constitutional article that allows the president to appoint as prime minister any MP who, “in the president’s opinion”, is most likely to command the confidence of parliament.
However, the Wickremesinghe faction has pointed out to the 2015 amendment which prevented the president from sacking any prime minister unless they had died, resigned or lost the confidence of parliament. The Article 46 (2) of the 19th Amendment to the Sri Lankan Constitution cites, the Prime Minister continues to hold office — throughout the period during which the Cabinet of Ministers continues to function under the provisions of the Constitution — unless he: (a) resigns by writing or, (b) ceases to be a Member of Parliament.
What is the road ahead for the crisis?
The ride to the solution of the Sri Lankan crisis seems a turbulent one. Whether the appointment of Rajapaksha was constitutional or not has to be decided by the Supreme Court of Sri Lanka. However, the courts in Sri Lanka are considered to be politically influenced. Additionally, a case is yet to be brought before the apex court.
Another way to end the crisis is ascertaining who exactly is the Prime Minister of the country by holding a vote of confidence in the parliament. Wickremesinghe undoubtedly holds a majority in the parliament. However, he is seven short of the magic number. On the other hand, Sirisena and Rajapaksha faction even considered together fall way short of the required number. This is also why; Sirisena may have decided to suspend the parliament working by November 16. This may provide Rajapaksha with the necessary time to convince the MPs to support him. The ruling coalition United National Front allies have already expressed their support to Wickremesinghe excluding Sirisena’s party. Reportedly, two MPs have defected to Srisena-Rajapaksha so far.
Meanwhile, Mahinda Rajapaksa has said that he will start occupying PM office from today. He is also expected to appoint his own cabinet.
On a brink of another civil war?
It has been just a decade since the civil war in Sri Lanka came to an end. The government declared the defeat of LTTE and establishment of peace in conflict areas. The political and constitutional crisis the country is facing right now can perilously snowball in a civil war if it is not addressed in time. The speaker of the Parliament Karu Jayasuriya warned today that the power vacuum at the centre is dangerous and can turn into a “bloodbath”. He said, “We should settle this through parliament, but if we take it out to the streets, there will be a huge bloodbath.”
The political turbulence has already led to clashes in the capital which have already claimed one life. The citizens are uncertain who among the two their Prime Minister is while both claims to be one. The political crisis has also affected the markets. As reported by Bloomberg, Sri Lanka’s 6.75 per cent 2028 dollar bonds fell 3 cents to a record low of 87.8 cents on the dollar, the most since the debt was sold in April, and the rupee slid 0.7 per cent to a lifetime low of 174.15 per dollar.
The power struggle between Wickremesinghe and Rajapaksha has thrown the country in a crisis on political, constitutional and economic fronts. With the politicians openly warning of “bloodbath”, Sri Lanka seems to be on the brink of another civil war. It is up to the three political leaders to prevent it.