By Jehan Perera –
The political crisis that erupted unexpectedly on October 26 still continues and is now entering its fourth week. President Maithripala Sirisena’s unexpected decision to replace Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe with former President Mahinda Rajapaksa unleashed the problem on an unsuspecting country. The problem is that the former president has been unable to show he has the support of the majority in parliament to legitimately take his new position as prime minister. On two occasions in the past fortnight 122 MPs out of 225 have voted and signed documents of no-confidence in the newly appointed prime minister. On both occasions the President has refused to act citing procedural issues. The entire country is looking to see the deadlock end soon. Unless resolved soon the damage to the country will grow.
The chief protagonist in this unfortunate drama is the President who precipitated the crisis by withdrawing his party’s support for the coalition government, sacked its prime minister and then attempted to dissolve parliament itself. The Supreme Court’s interim order staying the dissolution of parliament suggests that the President, who is so concerned with due process, did not follow it in taking that drastic action. The president has explained his actions as being due to the sale of national assets, the non-cooperation of the prime minister and the existence of an assassination plot against him that was not given adequate attention. As the president is the chief actor whose actions precipitated the crisis it is important to figure out his motivations. There may be other motivations in addition to the ones he has publicly articulated.
Sri Lanka has a mixed presidential and parliamentary system of government. Until April 2015 when the 19th Amendment to the Constitution was passed, the presidency was the dominant institution and not co-equal with parliament and the judiciary. The late president Ranasinghe Premadasa when he was prime minister described himself as being no more than a peon in relation to the president. Former chief justice Shirani Bandaranayake was severely punished when she ruled against the former president Mahinda Rajapaksa’s wishes. The 19th Amendment sought to change the balance of power. Sri Lanka’s future now depends on whether the president and prime minister, whoever they be, can share power in a new arrangement where each respects each other. The indication is that personal motivations have taken centre stage.
In getting out of the present crisis it is necessary that President Sirisena be part of the solution. The JVP boycotted the invitation by the President to be part of an all party conference to discuss the issue. The JVP’s position was that the president was the instigator of the problem. However, he is also key to the solution and needs to be engaged with as constructively as possible. So far the president has not crossed the line in terms of moving to suppress the opposition to his actions. Public protests are taking place and there is still no sense of menace. This is unlike in the period before he became president, when protestors were shot or made to disappear. However, the unpredictability of the president, his sudden actions and recalcitrance to solve the problem make a sudden plunge into repression a real possibility.
In these circumstances, it is unfortunate that President Maitripala Sirisena’s summoning of an all party meeting on Sunday to seek a way out of the ongoing political impasse did not yield a solution. The two sides took opposing stances. The president once again repeated his demand that the UNP and its allies should follow what he called proper procedures in parliament to pass a motion of no-confidence in the president’s prime ministerial appointee. Motions of no-confidence have now twice been moved by the UNP and its allies in the face of disruptive conduct of members of the recently appointed government. On both occasions President Sirisena declined to act on this no-confidence motion saying he was not satisfied with the process. This is in spite of veteran politicians on his side such as Kumara Welgama saying that if the government cannot show that it has majority support in parliament it should step down.
The problem with the president’s emphasis on proper procedures being followed is that they do not take the prevailing realities in parliament into consideration. The scenes in parliament that were broadcast on the mass media have been unprecedented and shocking. The manner in which chairs were thrown, unarmed policemen assigned to protect the Speaker Karu Jayasuriya were assaulted and even the Holy Bible was flung as a weapon was appalling. In this context the question that arises is whether the president is repeatedly making a call for proper procedures to be followed in order to thwart an outcome he does not wish to have to deal with. The government has outlined a 12 step process to be followed that can be delayed considerably if there is bad faith and delay is the goal.
During the discussions with the president the UNP and its allies had insisted that there were two possible processes for the passage of a no-confidence motion and the process that they have followed is as valid as the one that the president proposed. They also took the position that both no-confidence motions that they passed in parliament last week amidst the fracas were valid. On the other hand, President Sirisena had insisted that the process outlined by his side was the one that should be followed. If the executive and legislative bodies continue to be deadlocked a resort to the judiciary to be the arbiter appears inevitable, and necessary.
What is at stake in this political power struggle is the adherence to the Constitution and the Rule of Law which civilizes the use of power and reins it in. These laws are not, as President Sirisena seems to have been misadvised, mere guidelines for action but are rules that cannot and must not be breached. This is especially so in case of transitions. So far the transition of power from one government to another in Sri Lanka has taken place peacefully according to the law of the land. The interim order of the Supreme Court has stayed the president’s action of dissolving parliament in the present case. If the rules of the game are not followed this time, the next time the violations can be worse.
The longer the delay, the more damage to the country’s economy and to the people’s confidence in their leaders. The portents are ominous. So far the only violence has been within parliament itself where the president heads one of the parties responsible for the violence. But violence can suddenly spill out. A political deadlock that makes parliament unworkable will pose dangers for democracy itself. It can force a mass mobilization of political parties as has already been seen on multiple occasions. So far the security forces have not had to intervene as the demonstrators on both sides have been peaceful, but this situation cannot be taken for granted. It only needs a small group of provocateurs to set in motion acts of violence that can have a cascading effect.
After the all party conference, the president’s media unit reported that the president had cautioned that a no-confidence motion was a matter concerning a change of government and it was essential to win the confidence of the general public as well as the international community. On that basis it reported that the president had said that he required a majority to be shown either by name or electronically. The Venerable Omalpe Sobitha Thero has said that President Sirisena himself should supervise the next vote in parliament. It would be a statemanlike act of the President to go to Parliament, take the seat he is entitled to, and to exert his moral influence to ensure that the vote meets the requisite standards for him to end the political deadlock. As the initiator of the crisis, it is fitting that the president should be the initiator of the solution.