Making Sense Of Sri Lanka’s 2018 Political Crisis – OpEd
President Maithripala Sirisena’s sacking of Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe on October 26, 2018, ended the national unity government, which was formed in 2015. The President installed an administration headed by former President Mahinda Rajapaksa. Since Mahinda Rajapaksa could not prove his majority in Parliament and since parliamentary affairs became a contentious issue, the President dissolved Parliament on November 9, 2018. Political parties and civil society entities that opposed the dissolution challenged the presidential action in the Supreme Court. The Supreme Court eventually ruled that the dissolution was unconstitutional leading to the reinstatement of Ranil Wickremesinghe as Prime Minister. This essay while recording the events examines the causes and nature of the crisis.
Why did Sirisena dismiss Wickremesinghe? Following his unanticipated move, Sirisena cited personal and political reasons for the decision to remove Wickremesinghe and appoint a new government under the stewardship of Rajapaksa. The President said that he could not work with Ranil Wickremesinghe due to Wickremesinghe’s habit of ignoring the president or making unilateral decisions. It is important to note that Sirisena was made president mainly by the UNP and minority support as his party’s votes went to Mahinda Rajapaksa. In other words, one could argue that Sirisena became president thanks to Ranil Wickremesinghe. This factor may have played a role in the nature of relations between Sirisena and Wickremesinghe in the recent past.
Also, both had serious policy differences mainly concerning Sri Lanka’s dealings with India. Some of the concessions Ranil Wickremesinghe decided to make to New Delhi was not welcomed by Sirisena. Wickremesinghe was negotiating with New Delhi to lease the eastern terminal of the Colombo port to India. Sirisena argued that he was opposed to it because it went against the national interest of the country. Sirisena painted Wickremesinghe as an anti-national and unpatriotic personality and maintained that he was forced to remove him from the office to save the country.
Sirisena also claimed that Ranil Wickremesinghe and his government was corrupt. This argument stemmed from what was called the bond scam where Ranil Wickremesinghe’s friend and former Central Bank Governor Arjuna Mahendran and his nephew Arjun Aloysius were implicated for inside trading in the 2015 selling of treasury bonds.
An important factor that could have played a significant role in the President’s decision to remove Wickremesinghe was his own political future. In 2015, Sirisena left his political party, the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) and the government of Mahinda Rajapaksa to contest the presidential election representing the opposition alliance. He won. Following the electoral victory, he was appointed leader of the SLFP.
However, Mahinda Rajapaksa who controlled and dominated the SLFP until the 2015 election, formed his political party, the Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP) and managed to lure most of the SLFP members and loyalists. The SLPP convincingly won the 2018 local government election as well. The Sirisena headed SLFP was pushed to the third place. The SLPP was also gearing up to face the next presidential election on its own, and it was expected that one of the Rajapaksa siblings would contest the election under the SLPP banner.
Meanwhile, the differences between President Sirisena and the UNP, especially Ranil Wickremesinghe indicated that he would not get the UNP votes if he contests the next election. Wickremesinghe had his presidential ambitions and may contest under the UNP banner.
These realities indicated to Sirisena that he could not successfully contest the forthcoming presidential election and his presidency will be confined to only one term. It is possible that Rajapaksa and Sirisena had some understanding about accommodating Sirisena’s ambitions. Sirisena would not have reappointed Mahinda Rajapaksa, his arch opponent after 2015, without something in return. However, details of the Sirisena-Rajapaksa pact, which led to the political coup, remain extremely sketchy.
Moreover, one cannot completely rule out a possible China connection in this drama. Sidelining India and the West, Mahinda Rajapaksa leaned drastically towards China, especially after the end of the war with the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE). Sri Lanka almost became a Chinese colony in this period as China’s presence in Sri Lanka began to be extremely visible. China pumped millions of dollars mostly into infrastructure projects, supplied military hardware, and defended Sri Lanka in international fora. Sri Lanka and China were best buddies during the immediate post-war period.
This began to change in 2015 as the new government strived to balance relations with India, the West, and China. The shift was not pleasing to China. On the eve of the political change, a story suggesting that Indian military intelligence was trying to assassinate President Sirisena was floated by many actors including Sirisena himself. The point is that the Wickremesinghe government did not adequately serve the Chinese interest in Sri Lanka. Hence, China could not wait to see Rajapaksa back in power.
Of significance is the fact that it did not take too much time for the Chinese Ambassador in Sri Lanka to meet Rajapaksa in person to express China’s pleasure and congratulate him on his new appointment despite the controversy surrounding the political change. Perhaps, the strategy was to confer instant legitimacy on an illegitimate government. Most of the Western governments and India avoided this gesture. It won’t be surprising if evidence of a China connection in the decision to dismiss Wickremesinghe emerges in the future.
Mahinda Rajapaksa most probably accepted the invitation to form a government on the belief that Sirisena would supply the parliamentary majority, 113 seats in this case. It is possible that he believed that there had been a crack within the UNP. Equation within the national legislature suggested that without the support of a small number of UNP parliamentarians, the new government could not garner the necessary numbers. However, Wickremesinghe had an iron grip on his party’s parliamentary group, and his coalition partners also remained loyal to him. Hence, Rajapaksa could not return to Parliament with a simple majority. This ignited the unprecedented political situation and the chaos within Parliament and the county.
The Rajapaksa response was to proceed with the business of governance regardless of the number deficiency. The Sirisena-Rajapaksa coalition believed that effective functioning of the government would create the public acceptance and necessary defections within Parliament. The strategy eventually failed as Rajapaksa was forced to resign following the Supreme Court ruling.
The UNP and the coalition partners effectively executed a three-pronged strategy that entailed the following actions: (1) not accepting the claim that Rajapaksa’s new administration was legitimate, symbolically and otherwise, (2) constantly proving their dominance in the national legislature, and (3) mobilizing public support and sympathy.
First, the dismissed government refused to accept the titles used and appointments made by the new government. It, not without reason, criticized the media and others who called Mahinda Rajapaksa the prime minister. According to some assessments, there were two prime ministers in Sri Lanka from October to December 2018. Wickremesinghe also refused to vacate the Temple Trees, the official residence of the Prime Minister.
Second, the dismissed government presented and approved two no-confidence motions against Mahinda Rajapaksa proving that they, not the Rajapaksa faction, had the majority in Parliament. In addition, a parliamentary select committee was approved, and a confidence motion on Wickremesinghe was adopted. These calculated measures of the dismissed government were aimed at proving their majority in Parliament and thereby indicating to the people of the country and the world that Rajapaksa’s government was illegal.
The parliamentary strategy of the UNP created enormous pressure on the new administration, which first tried to disrupt the operation of the national legislature and then boycotted Parliament, conceding its inabilities and flaws, to a certain extent. The disruption strategy created a chaotic environment in Parliament. Reports indicated that soft and hard weapons, for example, chili-powder and knives were used by parliamentarians to make their points.
Third, the UNP and its allies effectively mobilized the masses conducting several protest campaigns. People were brought to the street. They angrily rejected the moves of the president and the new government. These campaigns effectively constructed the image that the dismissed government had adequate support in the country.
The three-pronged strategy of the UNP created adequate pressure on the new government and the President. It seemed that by the end of November both were looking to get out of the crisis they themselves created.
Although the UNP argued that the dismissal of the Prime Minister was illegal, it did not approach the judiciary to seek redress. The executive presidency created in 1978 conferred powers on the president to appoint the prime minister. Hence, the president has the power to dismiss as well. At least this was a gray area, and the UNP could not take a chance with the judiciary. The dismissal of Ranil Wickremesinghe was essentially a political question. It was undemocratic because the newly appointed prime minister did not have adequate support in Parliament.
Unable to deal with the chaos created within the national legislature, the President dissolved Parliament on November 9. The dissolution was illegal and unconstitutional. The 19th Amendment to the Constitution explicitly states that the President “shall not” dissolve Parliament within the first four-and-half-years of its first meeting. The current Parliament met for the first time on September 1, 2015. Hence, it cannot be dissolved by the President until February 2020.
With the law on their side, the UNP, some of its coalition partners, and civil society entities approached the Supreme Court. Given the intensity of the crisis created by the dismissal of Wickremesinghe and the dissolution of Parliament, and the straightforward nature of the case presented, many people expected a speedy verdict from the Supreme Court. The court took its time and rendered a decision on December 13. The court declared that the proclamation issued by the President dissolving Parliament was “null and void.” The Court further stated that the proclamation “has been issued outside legal limits and has resulted in a violation of Petitioner‘s rights…”
The verdict effectively canceled the plans for a fresh general election in January 2019 and dealt a partial blow to the plans of Sirisena and Rajapaksa. The final blow came, again, from the Supreme Court a day after the verdict on the dissolution of Parliament case was delivered.
While the case against the dissolution of Parliament was in progress, 122 members of Parliament filed a case in the Court of Appeal against the appointment of Rajapaksa as Prime Minister. The Court of Appeal issued an interim order preventing Mahinda Rajapaksa and his government from functioning on December 3. The Court decided to hear the case on December 12. However, it was clear that the court was not convinced that the Rajapaksa government had legitimate authority to continue. Hence, the interim injunction.
The interim order made Sri Lanka a government less state for about two weeks. Rajapaksa filed an appeal in the Supreme Court against the injunction. The Supreme Court upheld the interim order of the Court of Appeal on December 14 and decided to hear the case in the first week of January 2019.
The pressure was already mounting on the President and Rajapaksa based on public outcry and the activities undertaken within Parliament by the UNP and its allies including the main opposition party, the Tamil National Alliance (TNA). The Supreme Court dealt a partial blow when it delivered the verdict on the dissolution of Parliament. The fate of the Rajapaksa government was sealed when the Supreme Court refused to dismiss the Court of Appeal interim restriction imposed on the newly appointed government.
Return to the Status Quo
The writing was on the wall for Rajapaksa and his followers as they realized that their scheme could not be sustained without catastrophic consequences. Rajapaksa was also losing his “strong man” image and public support, which had the potential to undermine his chances in the forthcoming elections. Hence, he resigned on December 15. The President, who hitherto vowed never to reappoint Wickremesinghe even if all 225 parliamentarians supported him, agreed to reinstate the UNP led government under the headship of Wickremesinghe. Wickremesinghe was sworn in as Prime Minister by the President on December 16 bringing the political crisis to a holt.
One has to wait and see if the truce between Ranil Wickremesinghe and Maithripala Sirisena will sustain or reexplode sooner or later.