Sri Lanka’s democracy is at a crossroads. Its future is now primarily in the hands of the Supreme Court, President Maithripala Sirisena, Mahinda Rajapaksa and his SLPP, and Ranil Wickremesinghe and his UNP.
Verdict in favour of dissolution
The Supreme Court verdict due to be given on Saturday December 8th has to either confirm the constitutionality and legitimacy of President Sirisena’s decision to dissolve parliament or reject the decision as an illegitimate decision that violates the constitution. If the decision goes in favour of Sirisena, in effect, it will also be a decision in favour of Mahinda Rajapaksa. Such a decision is likely to have the following consequences.
1. In confirming the constitutionality of the dissolution, the Supreme Court will contradict the viewpoint of many of the leading constituitonal scholars and lawyers who have publicly stated that President Sirisena’s action was in violation of the letter of the Constitution. Such a verdict may call into question the validity of constituitonal governance.
2. The events in the last six weeks clearly demonstrate that such a decision will go against the spirit of democracy. The parliament has demonstrated that a majority of the MPs are for the continuation of the government that existed before October 26. The Parliament has also demonstrated on more than ne occasion that Mahinda Rajapaksa does not enjoy the support of a majority (minimum of 113 MPs) in parliament.
3. The dissolution of parliament at this juncture is not a victory for “people’s sovereignty” or democracy as some would claim. People’s sovereignty is protected when governance accords with the rule of law. Arbitrary action, in this instance the sudden holding of elections, by the executive branch to suit its narrow political goals is not a triumph for people’s sovereignty or democracy. It is the exact opposite. Such elections are held in banana republics and tin pot dictatorships to acquire a veneer of legitimacy for undemocratic governments. Sri Lanka’s 88-year-old democracy belongs to a more genuine tradition of democracy, and it would be a great tragedy if that tradition were to be abandoned starting with this crisis.
4. The Judiciary is the co-equal third branch of government in a democracy. One of its greatest constitutional obligations is to resolve disputes that can arise between the Legislative Branch and the Executive Brach of government. In the present crisis, so far, the Judiciary has acted with remarkable restraint, honour and integrity as the defender of the last resort of our democracy. If the Supreme Court legitimizes the dissolution of parliament, the judiciary will lose its credibility and standing as the defender of democracy not only in the eyes of a large number of the Sri Lankan public but also in the eyes of the entire democratic world.
Verdict against dissolution
If the Supreme Court returns a verdict that the dissolution is unconstitutional, the following consequences will follow.
1. Mahinda Rajapaksa and his cabinet that took office after October 26th will become illegitimate unless it suddenly manages to produce the 113 MPs in parliament to support it. Securing the support of 113 MPs is unlikely to happen.
2. President Sirisena will have to appoint an MP who commands the confidence of the majority. However, he has publicly declared that he will not appoint Ranil Wickremesinghe as the Prime Minister even if all 225 MPs in parliament want him.
3. President Sirisena’s antipathy towards Wickremesinghe then calls for flexibility on the part of the 122 or so MPs who want to return to the pre October 26 situation. The TNA and the JVP are not insisting on Wickremesinghe being appointed PM. Presumably some of the other smaller parties will also not mind somebody other than Wickremesinghe being appointed PM. That leaves Ranil Wickremesinghe and the UNP that has the largest number of MPs in the group to take a decision that gives a way out for President Sirisena while protecting the dignity and credibility of Wickremesinghe and the immediate and long term political interests of the UNP.
Options for the UNP
UNP can opt to name Mr. Karu Jayasuriya as the candidate for PM. In the past he was seen as a mild-mannered gentleman not particularly suited to the rough and tumble of politics. His conduct in the past six weeks showed that he is also a brave man made of sterner stuff willing to face adverse conditions and stand his ground for what he believes in.
The nation’s immediate and urgent need is to stabilize the situation, both in governance and the economy. In the last few days several global Investors Service companies have downgraded Sri Lanka’s sovereign bond rating as well as the ratings of some of the country’s major financial institutions such as the Bank of Ceylon, People’s Bank, Hatton National Bank and Sampath Bank. Unless quick remedial action is taken, the country will have a difficult time ahead. Mr. Jayasuriya is probably the best qualified to build a national consensus to seek solutions.
Speaker Jayasuriya has an outstanding record of public service that few Sri Lankan politicians can match. He served his country as a commissioned officer in the Sri Lanka Army volunteer force from 1965 to 1972. He was Sri Lanka’s ambassador to Germany from 1992 to 1994. From 1997 to 1999 he was Mayor of Colombo and served as leader of the opposition of the Western Provincial Council from 1999 to 2001. He first entered parliament on 2001 and held several cabinet positions. He has been a top business leader in the private sector for several decades.
Mr. Jayasuriya is acceptable to almost every section of society: Sinhalese, Tamil and Muslim; Buddhists, Hindus, people of the Islamic faith, and Christians; and urban and rural. Mr. Jayasuriya also has the support of the Sri Lankan business community. He also has wide international recognition and support that is a must to mobilize foreign investment and assistance to revive the wobbly economy.
President Sirisena has publicly declared that he is able to work with Mr. Jayasuriya. That is a huge plus.
Given his age, 79, Mr. Jayasuriya is not a threat to Mr. Wickremesinghe or to any other aspiring leader in his political party such as Sajith Premadasa. Mr. Wickremesinghe can remain as party leader and, if he so desires, also prepare as candidate for the next presidential election.
Mr. Premadasa has publicly declared that he is not ready to lead the party just now. But a settlement along the lines proposed here will give him an opportunity to prepare for the next parliamentary election as UNP’s prime ministerial candidate. A period of stability in the party and in the country will give Premadasa as well as other young aspiring leaders in the UNP, SLFP, SLPP and even currently politically unaffiliated individuals who have expressed an interest in contesting the next presidential election, an opportunity to prepare to take greater responsibility.
Mr. Ranil Wickremesinghe bears a major responsibility to help find a solution to this national crisis. Mr. Wickremesinghe may have weaknesses, but nobody is perfect. Many Sri Lankans may have forgotten the grace with which he left Temple Trees after the parliamentary election of 1994 when some of the other UNP leaders pressured him not to give up his premiership because no single party had won an absolute majority in parliament. Chandrika Kumaratunga’s People’s Alliance had 105 seats to UNP’s 94, and in principle, UNP could have assembled a coalition to remain in power. But Wickremesinghe felt that the people’s verdict was for a change of government and left office.
He made even a greater sacrifice in 2005. Mahinda Rajapaksa won the 2005 November presidential election by 181,000 votes polling 4.89m. (50.3%) to Wickremesinghe’s 4.71m. (48.4%). It is a widely known fact that Rajapaksa bribed the LTTE leader Velupillai Prabhakaran to get the latter to prevent Tamils from voting in the electorates in the north and east that the LTTE controlled. Wickremesinghe presumably could have got in to a bidding war to offer even more money to Prabhakaran to secure a normal vote in the Tamil areas. But he did not do so. The poll in the Jaffna District (registered voters 700,000) was only 8,500 (1.2%) In the few northern and eastern electorates that polled a little more normally such as Mannar (29% of registered voters voted and Wickremesinghe polled 89%), Vavunia (40% & 79%), Kalkudah (45% & 71%) and Batticaloa (56% & 79%), Wickremesinghe won overwhelmingly polling 70% to 90% of the vote. The national poll outside the north and east was mostly around 80%. If we assume that the north and east had a 70% poll, with 30% for Rajapaksa and 70% for Wickremesinghe, the former would have polled a total of about 250,000 votes to the latter’s 500,000 in those electorates. Wickremesinghe would have won the election with an overall majority of about 100,000 votes and got elected as the 5th Executive President of Sri Lanka.
Today Wickremesinghe is being asked to sacrifice his political ambitions a third time for the sake of the nation. It may be too much to ask from one individual. But if he sacrifices his personal ambition again for the greater good of the nation, people are likely to show their gratitude to him in the near future for rising once again from being a mere politician to that of statesman. The democratic world will salute him as a shining example of how a leader must put country before self in the hour of need to serve the people and save the nation from catastrophe.
*This article was authored by Professor S W R de A Samarasinghe in consultation with members of the Retired Senior Government Servants Forum that consists of about 50 members, mostly retired Secretaries of Ministries and Heads of Departments. The Forum was one of the signatories to the public appeal that consisted of about 50 civil society organizations made in 2015 to Sri Lankan voters to support the Yahapalanaya candidacy of Maithripala Sirisena.