On October 26, President Maithripala Sirisena removed Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe from office overnight, appointing his former foe, Mahinda Rajapaksa, as prime minister instead. Wickremesinghe refused to leave his residence, citing the illegitimacy of his ouster, while the president proceeded to appoint new cabinet members. The newly reunited duo of Sirisena and Rajapaksa were unable to muster enough votes in Parliament for the latter to show majority and stay in office, after which Sirisena proceeded to issue a gazette notification dissolving the Parliament, calling for general elections to be held on January 5, 2019, plunging the country into chaos.
This sudden and unexpected political turmoil is a cause for concern for the citizenry of the small island nation, as Sri Lanka has struggled to maintain peace since the end of its almost 30-year civil war in 2009, while trying to leverage its geostrategic position in the Indian Ocean. This crisis means that Sri Lanka, entrenched in post-independence ethnic strife and youth insurrections, stands to lose much of the progress it has made towards consolidating democracy in the past few years. The nation and the state must now look inward, assess the long term implications of the current stalemate, and try to put an end to a crisis that will likely cause more damage than bring positive change for the Sri Lankan people.
Origins of the Crisis
Recent political developments in Sri Lanka are emulative of a global wave of populism ushering hardline nationalists such as U.S. President Donald Trump and far-right parties across Europe into the mainstream political sphere. Sri Lanka’s own populist president, Rajapaksa, ascended to the presidency in 2005 and held power for another 10 years due to his appeal to the country’s Sinhalese Buddhist majority. While Rajapaksa was widely celebrated in Sri Lanka for ending the armed conflict against the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), rejecting foreign intervention in domestic affairs, and for his post-war development of the country, his regime also became infamous for severely shrinking civil liberties. Due to this, the Sri Lankan population voted in President Sirisena and his campaign promise of “Yahapalanya” (good governance) in 2015, against Rajapaksa, who was seeking to consolidate a third term in office.
Sirisena appointed Wickremesinghe, leader of the rival United National Party (UNP), as prime minister, under the rubric of a broad coalition government. This would be Wickremesinghe’s fourth term in this capacity. Together, the National Unity Government (NUG) set about a 100-day reform agenda, honoring Sirisena’s foremost campaign promise of curbing the powers of the executive presidency by amending the constitution with the help of Parliament. The resultant 19th amendment to the constitution did, in fact, curtail much of the power vested in the executive by limiting the president’s time in office to two 5-year terms, establishing the public’s right to information, and led to the establishment of several independent commissions, most important of which was the election commission, guaranteeing free and fair elections. However, the current constitutional and political crisis that the country is facing has corrupted the mandate of the Sri Lankan citizenry when it elected this executive as well as members of Parliament, as threats to security, brawling, and hostile behavior within these branches of government impede the nation’s democratic process, creating a mockery of the entire state apparatus.
At the crux of this situation is the question of the constitutionality of President Sirisena’s actions in removing the prime minister from office and appointing a new one without the consultation of Parliament, and in dissolving Parliament thereafter. Both the constitution itself and the 19th amendment are ambiguous in that neither expressly outlines in absolute terms which branch (the executive or the legislature) is vested with the power to dismiss the prime minister. However, the Supreme Court has the power under the constitution to make a final decision. Thus far, the court has proved its autonomy from the state and has consistently upheld the constitution, issuing an interim order suspending the president’s decision to suspend Parliament.
Political Schism between the Haves and Have Nots
Beyond the constitutive elements of government, the origins of this crisis are also rooted in the pernicious concept of power. President Sirisena, after diluting his own executive power through the 19th amendment, has manipulated these very powers, thereby impeding the system of checks and balances he formerly advocated for. Reinstating Rajapaksa as prime minister is hardly surprising given that earlier this year, Sirisena had sought the Supreme Court’s mandate on whether he could extend his term as executive to 6 years. Such moves by the president indicate that he was priming himself to remain in office for the longer term, and, in hindsight, this current stalemate may be indicative of Sirisena positioning himself to regain the confidence and support of the people by bringing back into office the populist Rajapaksa.
Sri Lanka must strive to uphold its democratic and socialist principles. A violation of the constitution by any branch of government creates precedent for the future generations of leaders to do the same. […] For Sri Lanka to come out of this crisis with its hard-fought democratic institutions intact, the inviolability of its constitution must remain sacrosanct.
Aside from the toxic mix of money, power, and corruption that have imbued Sri Lankan politics of late, the polity itself has become ideologically divided. It is widely understood that the part of the population supporting the UNP and the legitimacy of Ranil Wickremesinghe as prime minister is well-educated and usually comprises of the elite and ethnic minorities. They advocate for democracy and the upholding of fundamental rights, while also appealing to foreign powers that have vested interests in Sri Lanka to ensure the same. In stark opposition is the section of the population still loyal to Rajapaksa and his party, the Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP) – as demonstrated in the SLPP’s overwhelming win in February’s local-level elections – as well as the mainstream Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP). This part of the population is understood to be predominately Sinhalese Buddhist and geographically more rural than urban. Rajapaksa’s voter base represents the common folk of the country, who view him as a charismatic nationalist leader who provided jobs, subsidized food and fuel, and brought about the necessary development for post-war rebuilding of the country. Democracy and governance mechanisms are secondary considerations for this section of the population, for whom securing their basic needs like food, water, shelter, and livelihood supersedes other interests.
Implications for Sri Lankan Democracy
In the midst of the political saga that Sri Lanka is embroiled in, it is important for the country to find its bearings. The situation remains in a stalemate, where the constitutional validity of the president’s actions in dissolving Parliament and the recognition of a prime minister are being tested by the judiciary and legislature respectively. This uncertainty and political instability could prevail well into the new year.
Sri Lanka must strive to uphold its democratic and socialist principles. A violation of the constitution by any branch of government creates precedent for the future generations of leaders to do the same. The president’s decision, whether valid or not, has called the legitimacy of Sri Lankan democracy into question. For Sri Lanka to come out of this crisis with its hard-fought democratic institutions intact, the inviolability of its constitution must remain sacrosanct. If the outcome of the current crisis does not honor this pillar of democracy, then Sri Lanka stands to face an even worse crisis of legitimacy in the near future.
Priyanka Moonesinghe is currently working as a Consultant-Program Coordinator for the Regional Centre for Strategic Studies (RCSS), Sri Lanka. The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of her employer, the Regional Centre for Strategic Studies. A version of this piece originally appeared at South Asian Voices, an online platform for strategic analysis and debate hosted by the Stimson Center.