By S. Binodkumar Singh*
In a surprising political development, a coalition partner of the Sri Lankan Government, the United People’s Freedom Alliance (UPFA), announced its decision to leave the National Unity Government (NUG) on October 26, 2018. NUG was formed on August 20, 2015, with a coalition between UPGA and the United National Party (UNP). Soon after the announcement, the Presidential Secretariat published two Extraordinary Gazettes to remove Ranil Wickremesinghe from the Prime Minister’s post, and to appoint former President and Kurunegala District Member of Parliament (MP) Mahinda Rajapaksa as Prime Minister. Justifying his sudden political maneuver while addressing the nation on October 28, 2018, President Maithripala Sirisena categorically stated “There was a policy conflict between Hon. Ranil Wickremesinghe and me, during the last three and 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.”
Significantly, President Sirisena’s UPFA and Prime Minister Wickremesinghe’s UNP formed the NUG on a platform of good governance following the Parliamentary Elections held on August 17, 2015. There has, however, been growing tension between the coalition partners on several policy matters and the President has been critical of the Prime Minister Wickremesinghe and his policies, especially on economy.
Deepening the crisis further, on October 27, 2018, President Sirisena suspended Parliament until November 16, 2018, as Prime Minister Wickremesinghe refused to accept his unconstitutional removal and called for an immediate parliamentary session to prove that he retains the majority in Parliament. Further, on October 29, 2018, a new Cabinet of Ministers under Prime Minister Rajapaksa was sworn in before President Sirisena at the Presidential Secretariat in Colombo.
Reacting sharply to his sacking at a nationally televised press conference in the night of October 26, 2018, Wickremesinghe asserted “I am addressing you as the Prime Minister of Sri Lanka. I remain as Prime Minister and I will function as the Prime Minister. Only I have the majority. The only way that can be changed is through a no confidence motion or if I resign.”
According to the Article 42 (4) of the Constitution of Sri Lanka 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. Article 46 (2) states that the Prime Minister shall continue 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 his office by a writing under his hand addressed to the President; or (b) ceases to be a Member of Parliament. In the 225-member House, the Rajapaksa-Sirisena combine had only 95 seats and was short of a simple majority. Wickremesinghe’s UNP had 106 seats on its own, and was just seven short of the majority. Earlier, on April 4, 2018, Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe successfully defeated a No-Confidence Motion engineered by Sirisena and backed by Rajapaksa. Of the 225 MPs, 122 MPs – 104 of the UNP, 16 of the Tamil National Alliance (TNA), and one each of the Sri Lanka Muslim Congress (SLMC) and Eelam People’s Democratic Party (EPDP) – voted against the No-Confidence Motion.
Meanwhile, UNP senior Ministers and MPs at media briefings held in Temple Trees, Colombo, on October 28, 2018, said they would take to the streets and protest against the unconstitutional power transfer and the proroguing of Parliament. Angry protests rocked Sri Lanka’s capital as thousands of demonstrators gathered on October 30, 2018, for a mass rally organized by UNP against what it said was a “coup” by President Sirisena. Police sources estimated about 25,000 people thronged the rally.
Separately, to ensure that Prime Minister Wickremesinghe’s privileges are protected until the Parliament makes a decision on a Prime Minister due to the crisis situation prevailing in the country, Speaker Karu Jayasuriya, in a letter to the President, on October 28, 2018, stated, “I consider it my foremost duty to protect the rights and privileges of all Members of Parliament, especially in the context of the serious political-constitutional crisis which has arisen in the country. I have received a request to protect the rights and privileges of Hon. Ranil Wickremesinghe until any other person emerges from within Parliament as having secured the confidence of Parliament.” On October 30, 2018, in a letter to the President, the Speaker reiterated, “Once again, in the name of democracy, I kindly urge you to summon Parliament forthwith for the wellbeing of public and to ensure justice without allowing the country to be dragged into a crisis.”
Supporting Prime Minister Wickremesinghe, the main Tamil party, the Tamil National Alliance (TNA) which has 16 MPs in the House, in a statement issued on November 3, 2018, decided to support the no-confidence motion brought by the UNP against new Prime Minister Rajapaksa. Similarly, the Marxist Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP, People’s Liberation Front) which has six legislators, also announced on November 7, 2018, that the party would support any motion brought to defeat the political conspiracy hatched by President Sirisena and former President Rajapaksa.
Condemning the President’s unconstitutional power transfer, a group of civil society representatives met Speaker Jayasuriya on October 31, 2018, and handed over a petition containing approximately 16,000 signatures obtained through the Internet, urging that Parliament be reconvened immediately to re-establish democracy in the country. Separately, on November 6, 2018, the Maha Sangh, a large group of Buddhist monks, gathered near the Buddha statue at Viharamahadevi Park in Colombo and walked to the New Town Hall demanding the restoration of Parliament and honor of democratic principles and processes. Prior to the convention at the Town Hall, the Maha Sangha came to Temple Trees and blessed UNP leader Wickremesinghe. The Maha Sangha chanted Seth Pirith [Most Powerful Protection incantation] and invoked blessings on Wickremesinghe.
In a setback to President Sirisena, Sri Lanka’s Attorney General Jayantha Jayasuriya on October 31, 2018, refused to endorse the President’s dismissal of the Prime Minister for a former strongman accused of rights abuses, the clearest sign yet that the move was unconstitutional. Jayasuriya’s refusal bolstered Wickremesinghe’s claim that the President acted outside the Constitution by dumping him in favour of Rajapaksa, a former President who ruled with an iron fist for a decade. In another blow to President Sirisena, Manusha Nanayakkara, a UPFA Deputy Minister resigned on November 6, 2018, and backed the ousted Wickremesinghe, declaring that in his opinion Wickremesinghe was still the legitimate Prime Minister as accepted by the Speaker.
Significantly, on November 2, 2018, a resolution signed by 118 MP’s against the appointment of former President Mahinda Rajapaksa as the Prime Minister was handed over to Speaker Jayasuriya. In the resolution, the MPs stated, “We also don’t accept any of the decisions and appointments made by the President that followed the appointment of Mr. Rajapaksa as the Prime Minister.” On the same day, UNP MP Palitha Range Bandara revealed that he was offered USD 2.8 million and a Ministerial portfolio to join the Rajapaksa Government.
The international community reacted adversely to the Wickremesinghe’s dismissal. Expressing great concern on November 1, 2018, Secretary-General of the United Nations (UN) Antonio Guterres urged President Sirisena to revert to Parliamentary procedures and allow the Parliament to vote as soon as possible. Similarly, on November 6, 2018, the Commonwealth Secretary-General Patricia Scotland encouraged the political leaders and people of Sri Lanka to engage in constructive dialogue and uphold the rule of law in order to resolve the crisis. Likewise, on November 7, 2018, the United States urged President Sirisena to reconvene Parliament immediately. Meanwhile, a delegation of the European Union (EU) issuing a joint statement in agreement with the EU Heads of Mission as well as the Ambassadors of Norway and Switzerland resident in Colombo declared, on November 9, 2018,
We consider it essential that Parliament be allowed to demonstrate its confidence by voting immediately when reconvened in order to resolve the serious uncertainties currently facing the country. Any further delay could damage Sri Lanka’s international reputation and deter investors. Respect by all stakeholders for the provisions of the constitution will be important to maintain the confidence of the Sri Lankan people in democratic governance and the rule of law.
In the face of growing calls to end the political impasse in the country, partially revoking his order that suspended the House till November 16, President Sirisena, by his order of November 1, 2018, recalled Parliament on November 5. Once again, on November 4, 2018, President Sirisena issued an Extraordinary Gazette notification summoning Parliament on November 14. According to the extraordinary gazette notification signed by Udaya R. Seneviratne, the Secretary to the President, Parliament would be reconvened on November 14 at 10:00 a.m.
However, deepening the political crisis further, on November 9, 2018, President Sirisena in an extraordinary Gazette notification announced the dissolution of the Parliament with effect from November 9, midnight, and scheduled general elections to be held on January 5, 2019. Observers say the dissolution was announced as Sirisena realized that his de facto Prime Minister Rajapaksa would not command a majority in Parliament. The UNP had a slight edge over the Sirisena-led UPFA as Rajapaksa, who ruled the country from 2005 to 2015 has been accused of grave human rights abuses and corruption, and is unlikely to gain the backing of the 16 parliamentarians of the TNA. The six JVP legislators had already announced that they would vote in favor of Wickremesinghe.
On the other hand, betraying Sirisena, barely two weeks after the President installed Rajapaksa in office, the latter, along with 44 former MPs, defected from the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP), the party led by Sirisena, and joined the Sri Lanka Podujana Peremuna (SLPP), a political party formed in 2016 by Rajapaksa’s younger brother Basil Rajapaksa. A SLPP source said 65 out of 82 former SLFP MPs will eventually join the new party.
Meanwhile, on November 12, 2018, several political parties including UNP, JVP, the TNA, Tamil Progressive Alliance (TPA) and the All Ceylon Makkal Congress (ACMC), as well as the civil society organization, the Centre for Policy Alternatives (CPA), and Attorney Aruna Laksiri have filed petitions, naming President Sirisena, Prime Minister Rajapaksa, the Elections Commission and its members as respondents. The petitioners assert that the President has no power to dissolve Parliament under the 19th Amendment to the Constitution and have requested the Apex Court to issue an order voiding the gazette notification issued by the President dissolving the Parliament, and to suspend the upcoming General Election until the verdict on the hearing is passed.
The political crisis started in the Island nation on October 26, 2018, by President Sirisena abruptly ousting Prime Minister Wickremesinghe and replacing him with Rajapaksa is expected to continue for quite some time, as the matter has now passed on to the Supreme Court.
*S. Binodkumar Singh
Research Associate, Institute for Conflict Management