By S. Binodkumar Singh*
34 days after Sri Lankan President Maithripala Sirisena plunged the country into an unprecedented political crisis by dissolving the Parliament on November 9, 2018, the Supreme Court (SC) of Sri Lanka ruled, on December 13, 2018, that President Sirisena’s decision was illegal and unconstitutional. The verdict was delivered by a seven-judge bench headed by Chief Justice Nalin Perera.
President Sirisena set off a rolling crisis when he sacked the Prime Minister and leader of the United National Party (UNP) Ranil Wickremesinghe on October 26, 2018, and appointed former President and Kurunegala District Member of Parliament (MP) Mahinda Rajapaksa to the post. Justifying his sudden political maneuver while addressing the nation on October 28, 2018, President Sirisena declared,
|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.|
However, as President Sirisena realized that his de facto Prime Minister, Rajapaksa, would not command a majority in Parliament, in an extraordinary Gazette notification he announced the dissolution of Parliament with effect from November 9, midnight, and scheduled general elections to be held on January 5, 2019.
In the 225-member House, the Rajapaksa-Sirisena combine had only 95 seats and was clearly short of a simple majority. Wickremesinghe’s UNP had 106 seats on its own, and was just seven short of the majority. The Marxist Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP, People’s Liberation Front) which has six legislators had already announced that they would vote in favor of Wickremesinghe. Rajapaksa, who ruled the country from 2005 to 2015 and had been accused of grave human rights abuses and corruption, was unlikely to gain the backing of the 16 parliamentarians of the main Tamil party, the Tamil National Alliance (TNA).
On the other hand, 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 filed petitions, naming President Sirisena, Prime Minister Rajapaksa, the Elections Commission and its members as respondents. The petitioners assert that the President had no power to dissolve Parliament under the 19th Amendment to the Constitution and requested the Apex Court to issue an order quashing the gazette notification issued by the President, and suspending the proclaimed General Election until a verdict on the petition.
After the SC ruling, UNP leader Ranil Wickremesinghe was sworn-in on December 16, 2018, for a fifth time as the Prime Minister, ending a nearly two-month long political crisis.
However, in the wake of the SC ruling, bringing the political crisis back to square one, President Maithripala Sirisena told a parliamentary group of the United People’s Freedom Alliance (UPFA) on December 13, 2018, that he was not ready to work with UNP Leader Ranil Wickremesinghe at any cost. At the meeting, he decided not to be party to any National Unity Government with the UNP. The National Unity Government was formed on August 20, 2015, with a coalition between UPFA and the UNP. Earlier, speaking to media after the meeting with the President, UNP MP Akila Viraj Kariyawasam on December 3, 2018, had disclosed, “The President insisted that he will not make Ranil Wickremesinghe the Prime Minister even if 225 MPs support him.”
Indicating that the two leaders are still at loggerheads, President Sirisena named a 30-member Cabinet on December 20, 2018, while ignoring some of Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe’s nominees, and retained control over the country’s security forces and the Police. UNP had forwarded a list of 36 Ministers to the President, but President reduced the size of the Cabinet to 30, including himself and the Prime minister. Amongst Wickremesinghe’s nominees who Sirisena ignore were three MPs who had defected from Srisena’s Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) on December 18, 2018. Lakshman Seneviratne, Vijith Vijayamuni Soysa and Indika Bandaranayake had crossed over to the United National Front (UNF) Government led by the UNP.
President Sirisena and the Constitutional Council (CC) are also on a collision course over the appointment of judges to the SC and the Court of Appeal. The President has refrained from appointing Justice Gamini Amarasekara and S.Thurairajah as SC judges, despite CC recommendations. The CC had recommended the two names out of those submitted by the President on October 25, 2018. Instead of appointing them, the President referred another two names – K.K. Wickremesinghe and Deepali Wijesundara – to the CC to be appointed as the SC judges. Meanwhile, the President had also withheld the appointment of Justice K.P. Fernando to the Court of Appeal, again despite the CC’s recommendation. The CC met on December 21, 2018, and decided to stick to its recommendations despite the President’s refusal, and declined to consider any other Presidential nominee to the post of the President of the Court of Appeal, other than Justice K.P. Fernando. The CC is a ten-member body chaired by Speaker Karu Jayasuriya. The Prime Minister and the Opposition Leader are its members by virtue of their office.
Meanwhile, the indefinite ‘Sathyagraha’ (Struggle for Truth) campaign launched by Civil Society Organizations and Trade Unions against President Maithripala Sirisena’s Government, to protect the Constitution and Democracy, concluded on December 14, 2018, following the SC ruling that the dissolution of Parliament was unconstitutional and illegal. The continuous ‘Sathyagraha‘ had been launched on November 21, 2018, at the Vihara Maha Devi Park in Colombo.
Escalating the confrontation, JVP, moved an adjournment motion on December 18, 2018, to abolish the Executive Presidency, arguing that a majority of the people in the country were against the usurpation of power by a single individual. The Adjournment Motion on “Abolition of the Executive Presidency” was proposed by JVP MP Nalinda Jayathissa. The UNP, led by Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe, told Parliament that the party would support moves to slash the powers of the President and requested all other Members of Parliament to support JVP’s motion to abolish the Executive Presidency.
Welcoming the resolution of the political impasse in Sri Lanka, the United Kingdom Minister for Asia and the Pacific Mark Field, stated, on December 18, 2018,
|I welcome progress made towards the peaceful resolution of the political situation in Sri Lanka. The outcome is a welcome indication of the resilience of Sri Lanka’s judicial and democratic institutions, and of effective checks and balances between state powers.|
Similarly, praising the restoration of Sri Lankan Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe, U.S. State Department spokesman Robert Palladino observed, on December 18, 2018, “
|We are pleased that the leadership in Sri Lanka has resolved the political crisis of the past several weeks in accordance with constitutional norms and the rule of law.|
Lauding the “resilience” of Sri Lanka’s democratic institutions, United Nations (UN) Secretary General Antònio Guterres on December 20, 2018, welcomed the resolution of the political crisis in the island nation in a peaceful and constitutional manner.
Ending the nearly two-month-long political standoff in the country, President Sirisena has re-appointed Wickremesinghe as Prime Minister, following the SC order. However, the President’s decision to keep the Law and Order Ministry has been disputed by many, who argue that the President was only constitutionally allowed to be the Defence Minister, in addition to retaining the subject of Environment. Moreover, the conflict over Cabinet appointments indicates that Sirisena and Wickremesinghe were still at loggerheads, and the country’s political crisis is far from over.
*S. Binodkumar Singh
Research Associate, Institute for Conflict Management