Even as newly-appointed Sri Lankan Prime Minister, Mahinda Rajapaksa, who was also given charge of the finance portfolio, assumed duties on Wednesday and took swift measures to bring down the price of fuel, sections of the people demonstrated in Colombo and elsewhere, seeking restoration of democracy.
The situation was aggravated as clashes were reported after officials from the Rajapaksa’s office entered Temple Trees, the official residence of the prime minister which remains occupied by Ranil Wickremesinghe who was ousted last week by President Maithripala Sirisena. Wickremesinghe is refusing to vacate the premises on the grounds that constitutionally he is still the premier.
Sirisena, who seemed resolute about not heeding the second call by Speaker KaruJayasuuriya to re-convene parliament on November 2, changed his mind by Wednesday evening and agreed to consult Rajapaksa about reconvening parliament before November 16. Sirisena was persuaded to take this decision after the Jayasuriya met him on Wednesday.
The proroguing of parliament by Sirisena till November 16 was believed to be a time-buying mechanism to enable crossovers from the UNP coalition to the Rajapaksa side amidst allegations of horse-trading.
Meanwhile, angry crowds comprising mostly ordinary Colombo residents gathered on Tuesday to call for democracy to prevail, with many declaring that they were neither supporters of Wickremesinghe nor his United National Party (UNP). Notably, the calls for restoration of democracy came from the educated, westernised, English-speaking sections of Colombo’s population.
According to a wide section of the population, mainly three-wheeler drivers, agriculturists, labourers as well as province-based upper income-earning Sinhala Buddhist, there is strong support for Rajapaksa as evidenced in the local government elections in February this year. Many among the people feared that Sri Lanka was being “betrayed to foreigners”, “Buddhism being under threat” and spiraling cost of living.
The UNP, which led the government and handled Sri Lanka’s economic management for the past three years, is being seen as out of touch with the realities and is being said to be unpopular for imposing heavy taxes while not tightening the financial belt.
Sri Lanka has sections of people who in general see democracy tinged with western dominance. Some analysts, who appear to be neutral and not supportive of Rajapaksa, toe the line that the appointment of a new prime minister was the “only alternative to save the country from internal and external threats.’
Currently, the international community, with the exception of China and Iran, is with the UNP and Wickremesinghe and this is evidenced in the strongly-worded letters that the US, Canada, the EU and the UK have issued, calling for the respect of democracy and constitutional norms.
Interestingly, a key aspect of Rajapaksa’s popularity is the UN and the western world’s pre-occupation with Sri Lanka’s alleged war crimes in the last phase of the war with the LTTE and the West’s prescription for war-time accountability and reconciliation.
Rajapaksa, who ended the war with a military victory, was seen as having squandered a chance to usher in post-war equality and harmony, instead resorted to ultra-nationalistic, race-driven euphoria that brought a fear psychosis among the Tamils.
Sirisena, who took over the reins of governance by defeating Rajapaksa in the 2015 presidential election, after accepting the offer by the UNP’s Wickremesinghe to be the presidential candidate, soon found himself in the same pit as Rajapaksa when he courted the Sinhala nationalistic line, paying no heed to a long-term political solution to the Tamil question. Analysts said that the current political upheavals come at a time when constitutional crisis and ethnic minority politics simmer at the same time. Sri Lanka’s reconciliation process will get more convoluted, observers said.
While Rajapaksa may succeed in solidifying his position as PM with majority support in parliament, there are mixed views whether Sirisena’s removal of Wickremesinghe was constitutional or not.
On its part, the Centre for Policy Alternatives (CPA) condemned in “the strongest possible terms the attempt by President Maithripala Sirisena to purportedly remove Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe from office and appoint Mahinda Rajapaksa as the prime minister instead. We firmly believe that these acts are unconstitutional and illegal, and wholly lacking in democratic legitimacy”.
“The Nineteenth Amendment to the Constitution (2015) took away the power previously held by the President to dismiss the Prime Minister. This is the effect of Articles 42(4), 46(2), and 48 of the Constitution. While the President retains the ceremonial task of appointing the Prime Minister in terms of Article 42(4), this is not a subjective decision or power of the President, and he only act under this provision subject to the confidence of Parliament in the Prime Minister. The circumstances in which the Prime Minister ceases to hold office, on the other hand, are now specifically and formally set out in the Constitution. Unless the Prime Minister ceases to function in office by death, resignation, or by ceasing to a Member of Parliament, the only other way in which the Prime Minister can be removed is if the Prime Minister loses the confidence of Parliament, expressed through a defeat on the Statement of Government Policy, the Appropriations Bill, or through a motion of no-confidence as per Article 48(2). The House has not expressed its loss of confidence in Prime Minister Wickremesinghe, the necessary conditional precedent, prior to his purported removal by the President on 26th October 2018.”
On appointing a new prime minister, despite the dilution of the president’s powers as per the 19th Amendment, there is also the alternate view that article 42 gives a clear authority to the president to appoint a prime minister who is likely to command the confidence of parliament. Article 42 says that “The President shall appoint as Prime Minister the Member of Parliament, who, in the President’s opinion, is most likely to command the confidence of Parliament”.
Nevertheless, despite varying viewpoints, even as the term ‘political coup’ is being bandied about, the fact is that Sri Lanka is in the midst of political instability till such time that parliament does not settle matter.
With five members of the UNP alliance having joined Rajapaksa and obtaining ministerial positions in the new cabinet, the deciding factor that will seal Wickremesinghe’s fate will be the Muslim parties, the All Ceylon Makkal Congress (five MPs) and the Sri Lanka Muslim Congress (seven MPs) which are currently with the UNP alliance, the United National Front (UNF).
The Marxist Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP), with six seats in parliament, is opposed to both the UNP, SLFP and Rajapaksa’s SLPP. The party categorically said that it will not join any government.
The Tamil National Alliance (TNA), with 16 MPs, issued a statement stating that it will back only a government which takes into account a solution to the Tamil ethnic question and pledges to usher in a new constitution as a means of dissolving power to the provinces and providing autonomy to the Tamil minority.
Rajapaksa’s SLPP has said it will not take ministerial positions but back the new PM in carrying out his duties as finance minister to solve Sri Lanka’s financial problems caused by a plummeting rupee.