By Rasika Jayakody –
Sri Lanka’s political crisis is far from resolved.
Although the United National Front (UNF), the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) and the Tamil National Alliance (TNA) have passed two no-confidence motions against former President Mahinda Rajapaksa and have demonstrated their majority via an ‘electronic vote’, the purported government, backed by President Maithripala Sirisena, continues to illegally hold office.
All 122 lawmakers supporting the no-confidence motion have filed a Writ of Quo Warranto in the Court of Appeal, in a fresh attempt to oust Rajapaksa and the members of his government. This process is likely to spark an intense and possibly lengthy legal battle. Two other motions seeking cut off budgetary allocations to the Prime Minister’s Office, occupied by Rajapaksa, and to all other ministries will be taken up before the Parliament next week. The motions, if passed, will further tighten the screws on the purported government and intensify the fierce power struggle that has gripped Sri Lankan politics since October 26.
While the political crisis has now plagued every aspect of the country’s state machinery and plunged society into unchartered waters, we must not forget that it all started with actions of one man – President Maithripala Sirisena.
Sirisena triggered the crisis by appointing a parliamentarian who did not command a parliamentary majority as the Prime Minister, using a spate of unconstitutional and illegal methods. In doing so, the President brazenly violated the provisions of the 19th Amendment to the Constitution, which he himself presented to Parliament in April 2015. What’s worse, the reasons for the President’s actions, as he explained later, are largely personal and stem from seemingly unbridgeable socio-cultural and lifestyle differences between Sirisena and ousted Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe.
At the centre of this crisis, therefore, is President Sirisena, driven by the deep bitterness he harbours against Wickremesinghe. As a way of resolving the crisis, Sirisena has explored the possibility of appointing another senior figure within the UNP camp as Prime Minister, in a direct snub at Wickremesinghe. This plan has proved to be futile with the UNP top-tier continuing to pledge full support to Wickremesinghe turning down all invitations for negotiations on back-door appointments. Sirisena insists he will never appoint Wickremesinghe the Prime Minister again, even if the latter commands the support of the entire legislature – in direct contravention of the 19th Amendment to the Constitution, and in an alarming sign of future course of action.
The Rajapaksa group’s exit strategy from the current impasse is parliamentary election, which they hope will solidify the position of the former President. However, they face Constitutional barriers there, as they are barred from holding an election until four and a half years into the term of Parliament is past, unless explicitly requested for by no less than a two-thirds in the House. The UPFA group’s first plan was to orchestrate continuous chaos in Parliament to force a resolution demanding an early dissolution and snap elections. However, it appears to be that the UPFA finally came to the realisation that their strategy of orchestrating chaos within the legislature is self-defeating and comes with a great political cost. Fence sitters from the urban middle class are already railing against the behaviour of UPFA MPs in Parliament and demanding more civilized conduct from politicians. It is against this backdrop that S. B. Dissanayake, a stalwart of the UPFA, publicly urged Sirisena to withdraw his call for the dissolution of Parliament and allow the current Parliament to continue its full term.
Despite these developments, there is an argument to be made for taking the vote to the people, by means of an election. An early dissolution of Parliament and snap General Elections go against the Constitution and Provincial Council elections will only be a futile exercise with little impact on the deadlock in national politics.
The only practical solution would be to hold a Presidential election, that is permitted by the Constitution any time after January 2019. When President Sirisena appointed Rajapaksa as his Prime Minister, one of his main conditions was that the Rajapaksa group must extend their unequivocal support to Sirisena to help him secure the Presidential candidacy of the UPFA/SLPP alliance. The ink is barely dry on this agreement, and it is time Sirisena steps up as the Presidential candidate of the UPFA/SLPP alliance and seeks a fresh mandate from the people for his course of action. The Rajapaksa group seems confident of their ability to perform electoral miracles and have already begun a widespread social media campaign, under the theme #LetMeVote, to mobilize masses for elections.
A Sirisena win at the next Presidential election will decisively end the political career of Ranil Wickremesinghe and the UNP will be forced to appoint a new leader – a favourable outcome from Sirisena’s standpoint. The defeated UNP will have little political stamina to challenge Sirisena’s actions and the President will be able to continue with the current Parliament, with his chosen Prime Minister. That will also give him the option of continuing with the current Parliament until mid-2020and to call for a General Election from a much stronger position then, minus any constitutional impediment.
In the event that Sirisena is defeated, he current deadlock will be broken, as the UNP candidate will be able to work constructively with the legislature, in which the UNP-friendly alliance already commands a majority.
Either way, a Presidential election in January is the easiest way to end the current political deadlock, without breaching provisions of the Constitution and without affecting the state machinery for any longer at a great cost to the economy. It is also a common strategy that all political parties, including the ones supporting the no-confidence motion against Mahinda Rajapaksa, can agree upon. In the end, it is the people’s will that must be upheld and the public must be encouraged to exercise their franchise to end the most intense political power struggle that Sri Lanka has seen in its post-independence history.
*Rasika Jayakody is the former Editor of Daily News and the former Editor-in-Chief of Asian Mirror. He may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org