By Jehan Perera –
In the aftermath of the Supreme Court decision to issue a stay order on the president’s dissolution of parliament, the constitutional are nearer to being resolved. The reconvening of parliament after the stay order has seen the newly appointed government repeatedly defeated in votes in parliament. Two no-confidence motions against Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa have been passed and two motions to halt the allocation of funds to government ministries have also been passed. The government’s inability to muster sufficient numbers in parliament to outvote the opposition has led to the unprecedented situation, at least in Sri Lanka, of the government itself boycotting parliament.
So far it appears that the newly appointed prime minister and his ministers have no intention of surrendering their recently acquired power and privileges. They have sought to delegitimize parliament by accusing the Speaker Karu Jayasuriya of bias and the votes against them of being part of a flawed process. This is a potentially dangerous situation. It is unwise to be complacent and to believe that time and space is available to engage in conflict resolution or that matters will proceed in a linear direction. There is a possibility that there could be a new plunge to further crisis, emergency and further political polarization.
So far President Maithripala Sirisena has not exercised his power to end the unprecedented deadlock in governance that is costing the country dearly. The economy has come to a standstill and will soon plunge downhill unless the government starts to function in a cohesive manner again. The officials in government departments are reluctant to take any new decisions as they are aware that the legitimacy of their present ministers is in question. Speaker Jayasuriya has announced that the prime minister and his ministers do not exist as a consequence of the votes of no-confidence against them in parliament.
President Sirisena has two sources of power when it comes to ending the current deadlock. One is his power to dismiss the prime minister and his government. This is a power that the president exercised under controversial circumstances when he dismissed Prime Minister Wickremesinghe even when he was demonstrating that he enjoyed the majority support in parliament. If the president could sack Prime Minister Wickremesinghe there is no reason why he cannot do the same to Prime Minister Rajapaksa who has repeatedly failed to demonstrate majority support in parliament.
The second source of power that the president possesses is coercive power as commander-in-chief of the armed forces and as minister of defense that includes the police. Institutions such as parliament and the judiciary can pass laws and make decisions. But they cannot directly implement the decisions they make. This is the task of the executive branch of government and is in accordance with the principle of separation of powers. The ultimate source of executive power lies with the president who appoints the prime minister, ministers and heads of the armed forces.
President Sirisena has been extremely circumspect in his use of the coercive power of the state from the time he became president in 2015. By way of contrast the previous president and his government were seized with a national security mindset. This caused them to unleash the military even on communities who were publicly protesting their rights to drinkable water. It is to the credit of the President Sirisena that even as the country faces a protracted political crisis, with large public protests in the heart of the capital, he has ensured that raw military power will not be exercised.
The ongoing political crisis commenced with President Sirisena’s decision to dismiss Prime Minister Wickremesinghe and to hand that post over to Prime Minister Rajapaksa. The crisis that started with the president needs to be ended also by the president. But the problem is that the president is repeatedly stating both in public and private that he cannot work together with Prime Minister Wickremesinghe and will therefore not appoint him again as prime minister. This is not a position that is either constitutional, just or in keeping with parliamentary tradition, in which the person who enjoys majority support in parliament is appointed as prime minister.
On the other hand, the parliamentary majority has made it clear through written and verbal statements that their choice is indeed Prime Minister Wickremesinghe. As the relationship between the president and prime minister is necessarily an official one, and not a private one, it is not appropriate for the president to insist on his position that he cannot work with Prime Minister Wickremesinghe and will therefore not appoint him to that position. it may be possible to find a solution that is both constitutional and just and also minimizes the time he has towork together with the Prime Minister he says he cannot work together with.
When there is deadlock and a mutually hurting stalemate where all sides are hurting, and the country and its people are hurting, it is important that political leaders should rise to the challenge. There is a need for a win-win solution that all competing groups can be part of. One proposal being made is for President Sirisena to correct the situation by reappointing Prime Minister Wickremesinghe on the one hand, and to get together with him and Prime Minister Rajapaksa to decide on holding a general election under peaceful conditions, and which the latter has been demanding. President Sirisena can still emerge a statesman and not as the politician who took the country in an uncharted direction that eroded its democracy and economy for a long time to come.