India Today - - INSIDE - By Namini Wi­jedasa

A con­sti­ti­tional cri­sis re­sults as PM Wick­re­mas­inghe is sacked and Mahinda Ra­japaksa makes a come­back

OOn the af­ter­noon of Oc­to­ber 26, par­lia­men­tar­i­ans from Pres­i­dent Maithri­pala Sirisena’s Sri Lanka Free­dom Party (SLFP) gath­ered at his of­fi­cial res­i­dence. They did not know the meet­ing would be a pre­cur­sor to one of the most tan­gled con­sti­tu­tional de­bates in the coun­try’s his­tory.

Sirisena told them he was form­ing a new ad­min­is­tra­tion. He or­dered a party of­fi­cial to give no­tice that the United Peo­ple’s Free­dom Al­liance (UPFA), which in­cludes the SLFP, is quit­ting the gov­ern­ment. He then sum­moned his most bit­ter ad­ver­sary, Mahinda Ra­japaksa, to the venue and swore him in as Sri Lanka’s 16th prime min­is­ter. It was over in four hours.

Even sup­port­ers of Ra­japaksa, the for­mer pres­i­dent who had de­feated the Tamil Tigers and was now an or­di­nary mem­ber of par­lia­ment, were baf­fled. What just hap­pened? To­day, for all in­tents and pur­poses, Sri Lanka has two prime min­is­ters: Ranil Wick­remesinghe and Ra­japaksa. And un­til ques­tions of law, con­sti­tu­tion­al­ity and par­lia­men­tary ma­jor­ity are un­snarled in one or both of two fo­rums—the leg­is­la­ture and the Supreme Court—the sta­tus quo could con­tinue.

The stale­mate, in­volv­ing some of the most se­nior politi­cians in power, is ugly and di­vi­sive, with be­trayal thrown into the fes­ter­ing mix. Sirisena only won the pres­i­dency in Jan­uary 2015 be­cause di­verse groups led by Wick­remesinghe’s United Na­tional Party (UNP) fielded him. He had de­fected from Ra­japaksa’s au­thor­i­tar­ian gov­ern­ment to con­test, and hid away in a co­conut es­tate on elec­tion night till the re­sults con­firmed his vic­tory.

On Jan­uary 9, min­utes af­ter Sirisena was sworn in, Wick­remesinghe took oath as prime min­is­ter (and, again, in Au­gust 2015 af­ter a gen­eral elec­tion). The en­su­ing coali­tion gov­ern­ment was an uneasy one, not least be­cause the two lead­ers es­poused con­trast­ing eco­nomic ide­olo­gies. Wick­remesinghe backs free-mar­ket cap­i­tal­ism while Sirisena is of a so­cial­ist bent. But for two years, at least, it hob­bled along.

The 19th amend­ment to the con­sti­tu­tion pruned the pow­ers of the pres­i­dency and pre­cluded the pres­i­dent from dis­solv­ing par­lia­ment for the first four-and-a-half years and took away his pow­ers to sack the prime min­is­ter. But it was cit­ing this very law that Sirisena, call­ing him­self the “ap­point­ing author­ity”, no­ti­fied Wick­remesinghe of his re­moval.

The move has trig­gered a heated con­sti­tu­tional dis­cus­sion. Never has the 19th amend­ment been so closely read, dis­sected or in­ter­preted. Wick­remesinghe’s camp has stayed con­sis­tent. It in­sists the pres­i­dent can no longer sack a premier. The po­si­tion falls va­cant only if its holder re­signs or ceases to be an MP. So Wick­remesinghe wrote back, reaf­firm­ing his role as the coun­try’s con­sti­tu­tion­ally ap­pointed prime min­is­ter who

com­manded the con­fi­dence of the ma­jor­ity of par­lia­men­tar­i­ans. This po­si­tion is backed by the likes of the Tamil Na­tional Al­liance (TNA), which has 16 MPs. “Our par­lia­men­tary group unan­i­mously agrees that what hap­pened was un­con­sti­tu­tional and il­le­gal,” says Mathi­a­paranam Su­man­thi­ran, MP.

In the Sirisena/ Ra­japaksa camp, the ar­gu­ments have been evolv­ing. Wick­remesinghe was dis­missed un­der a pro­vi­sion al­low­ing the pres­i­dent to ap­point as prime min­is­ter the MP who, in the pres­i­dent’s opin­ion, “is most likely to com­mand the con­fi­dence of par­lia­ment.” But there was no proof Wick­remesinghe had lost this priv­i­lege. In April 2018, he de­feated a no-con­fi­dence mo­tion against him by a sig­nif­i­cant ma­jor­ity.

A key ar­gu­ment made by the Sirisena camp is of a word’s dif­fer­ence in the English and Sin­hala ver­sions of the 19th amend­ment. The English text speaks of a prime min­is­ter no longer hold­ing of­fice due to death, res­ig­na­tion or “oth­er­wise”. The Sin­hala text states death, res­ig­na­tion or “re­moval”.

Wick­remesinghe has cho­sen not to have these tech­ni­cal­i­ties ham­mered out in the Supreme Court. The over­whelm­ing de­mand—sup­ported by civil so­ci­ety, in­ter­na­tional or­gan­i­sa­tions, cit­i­zen groups and sev­eral coun­tries, in­clud­ing the US and UK—has been for par­lia­ment to be sum­moned so it can de­ter­mine who does hold the con­fi­dence of the House. An ex­ter­nal af­fairs min­istry spokesper­son in New Delhi said on Oc­to­ber 29 that In­dia hoped “demo­cratic val­ues and the con­sti­tu­tional process will be re­spected”.

But Sirisena, who pro­rogued the leg­is­la­ture till Novem­ber 16 soon af­ter in­stalling Ra­japaksa as premier, has re­sisted all these calls. The ques­tion no­body has yet con­vinc­ingly an­swered is this: Why now? A pres­i­den­tial poll was due in Jan­uary 2020, fol­lowed by a gen­eral elec­tion in Au­gust the same year. Grow­ing anti-in­cum­bency com­bined with eco­nomic dif­fi­cul­ties on mul­ti­ple fronts would, many an­a­lysts felt, have favoured a strong per­for­mance by a Sirisena/ Ra­japaksa front.

A new party floated by Ra­japaksa, called the Sri Lanka Peo­ple’s Front, out­per­formed the UNP and the SLFP at lo­cal gov­ern­ment elec­tions in Fe­bru­ary. And anger was grow­ing at the ad­min­is­tra­tion’s stub­born post­pone­ment of provin­cial polls.

If that was too long to wait, the gov­ern­ment could have been de­feated in Novem­ber when the sec­ond read­ing of the bud­get was to have been voted on. But that pre­sup­poses that the UPFA, and who­ever its al­lies may be, had suf­fi­cient num­bers in par­lia­ment to chal­lenge the Wick­remesinghe-led ad­min­is­tra­tion. And what is clear now is that they never did. (There will be no bud­get ei­ther, only a vote-on-ac­count.)

That, says Man­gala Sa­ma­raweera—whose fi­nance min­istry port­fo­lio was given on Oc­to­ber 29 to Ra­japaksa—is where Sirisena’s gam­ble fal­tered. The pres­i­dent, he feels, promised his new prime min­is­ter the back­ing of 113 MPs in the 225-mem­ber as­sem­bly. But it is only now that the se­ri­ous horse-trad­ing has started.

So far, five of the UNP’s 106 mem­bers have de­fected for min­is­te­rial posts and, it is al­leged, money. Many more are needed to boost the UPFA’s camp— 95-strong at the start of the cri­sis—

par­tic­u­larly as the UNP also has the back­ing of par­ties like the TNA and Sri Lanka Mus­lim Congress.

Thrown into the equa­tion is a bizarre, al­leged as­sas­si­na­tion plot. In re­cent weeks, Sirisena ap­pears to have been con­vinced that there was a con­spir­acy to kill him and Gotabaya, Ra­japaksa’s brother, the for­mer sec­re­tary of de­fence. Af­ter block­ing moves to hand over man­age­ment con­trol of a strate­gic ter­mi­nal in the Colombo port to an In­dian com­pany, he claimed at a cab­i­net meet­ing that In­dia’s in­tel­li­gence agency, the Re­search and Anal­y­sis Wing (R&AW), was in­volved in the plot and ac­cused Wick­remesinghe of not tak­ing the threat to his life se­ri­ously.

Sirisena has moved swiftly to swear in a small cab­i­net, leav­ing some key jobs open for pos­si­ble de­fec­tors. He has filled key posts with his or Ra­japaksa’s hench­men and loy­al­ists. And Sirisena has tried to chase Wick­remesinghe from his of­fi­cial res­i­dence by cut­ting se­cu­rity and tak­ing away his cooks, clean­ers and driv­ers.

But it is hard to see how the pres­i­dent can emerge with any per­sonal or po­lit­i­cal cred­i­bil­ity from this cri­sis— even if he trumps the tech­ni­cal­i­ties. Even among the diplo­matic com­mu­nity, only China, which stands to ben­e­fit from a pro-Bei­jing Ra­japaksa ad­min­is­tra­tion, has given the new dis­pen­sa­tion any form of recog­ni­tion.

The out­look now for a coun­try strug­gling un­der heavy debt—Rs 1.9 tril­lion worth of it was ma­tur­ing at the end of this year alone—is bleak. In­vest­ment was flag­ging, and the po­lit­i­cal in­sta­bil­ity caused by last week’s un­ex­pected events does not in­spire con­fi­dence. Moody’s In­vestors Ser­vice has warned that fis­cal and cur­rent ac­count deficits will widen again, re­duc­ing in­vestor ap­petite for debt and spurring cap­i­tal out­flows.

There are also wor­ries about the mer­cu­rial Sirisena’s next moves. From within his pres­i­den­tial bub­ble, he has re­sisted any form of coun­sel from pro-democ­racy lob­bies. The army com­man­der has said the mil­i­tary will keep out of it. But it is feared this op­tion will be ex­plored if the re­quire­ment to block par­lia­ment should arise. The le­gal vac­uum within, which the ap­pa­ra­tuses of the pub­lic sec­tor are op­er­at­ing, is also of con­cern. This sit­u­a­tion is un­prece­dented and no­body but the pres­i­dent seems to wield any power.

Ra­japaksa now also looks the worse for wear. Dur­ing the end of his sec­ond pres­i­den­tial term, he was crit­i­cised for be­ing dic­ta­to­rial and power-hun­gry. For his crit­ics, this has only proved the leop­ard doesn’t change its spots. Or, for that mat­ter, its style of gov­er­nance.

CHANG­ING DY­NAM­ICS Mahinda Ra­japaksa (left) at his swear­ing-in as Sri Lanka’s new prime min­is­ter be­fore Pres­i­dent Maithri­pala Sirisena (right) on Oc­to­ber 26

COM­MON AGENDA Ranil Wick­remesinghe with PM Naren­dra Modi in New Delhi on Oc­to­ber 20

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