By Asoka Bandarage –
The defeat of Mahinda Rajapaksa at the Sri Lankan Presidential elections on January 8 is hailed internationally as a victory for the rule of law, democracy, freedom of expression and good governance. The Rajapkasa government (2005-2015) defeated the terrorist LTTE in 2009 ending the longest running conflict in Asia. It also contributed to substantial economic growth turning Sri Lanka into a middle-income country in a region with the greatest concentration of poor. Despite these political and economic achievements, Rajapaksa narrowly lost the elections due to charges of corruption and authoritarianism of his government.
Rajapaksa was defeated by Maithripala Sirisena, the so-called ‘Common Candidate’ of a new political alliance which claimed that the extent of corruption in the last few years of the Rajapaksa government was “unprecedented and unheard of before” in Sri Lanka. The current government, however, is not entirely a new regime; only Rajapaksa and his core circle were replaced. Sirisena, like a number of others in his administration served as senior Ministers of the Rajapaksa administration until the election campaign. As such, they too bear responsibility for alleged excesses of the Rajapaksa regime.
Sirisena promised to bring in a new era of morality, compassion, freedom, democracy and good governance (yahapalayanaya). His Election Manifesto promised to address urgent issues during the first 100 days of his regime, notably the abolition of the Executive Presidency (established by J.R. Jayewardene in 1978) and the 18th Amendment to the Constitution that Rajapaksa introduced to remove term limits to the Executive Presidency. Sirisena also promised to implement a six-year program with the government to be established after the parliamentary elections to be held after the 100 days. Given relative absence of international media coverage following the euphoria over the January 8 election, it is necessary to look at how good governance is progressing in Sri Lanka.
Rule of Law
Sirisena came to power calling for the abolition of the ‘unlimited powers’ of the Executive Presidency that Rajapaksa was accused of abusing. Ironically, Sirisena himself has misused the powers of the Executive Presidency. The Sri Lankan Constitution does not call for change of the Prime Minister and the Cabinet along with a change of the President. Not only did Sirisena immediately appoint a new Prime Minister, Ranil Wickremesinghe, but he has allowed Wickremesinghe to become the Executive Prime Minister making all the important decisions in the government. This has reduced the Presidency largely to a ceremonial function. The legality of this role reversal accomplished without parliamentary elections or a change in the Constitution, is a cause for much concern in the country. People voted to bring Sirisena to power: not Wickramasinghe. As Prime Minister in the 2001-2004 period, Wickremesinghe empowered the LTTE during the Norwegian brokered Peace Process and subsequently lost the Presidential elections to Rajapaksa in 2005.
Another controversy pertaining to respect for the rule of law by the new Sri Lankan government involved the removal of the Chief Justice (CJ) Mohan Pieris and reinstatement of former CJ Shirani Bandaranayake on January 30 (she retired the next day when Justice K. Siripavan was appointed CJ) Wickremesinghe stated in Parliament that the process by which Bandaranayake had been removed by Mahinda Rajapaksa in 2013 was ‘flawed’. Her removal, however, had come after a parliamentary majority vote, a move then supported by Maithripala Sirisena and other members of the current Cabinet. In contrast, Mohan Pieris, a close confidant of Rajapaksa was removed merely with a letter from President Sirisena, without even a ‘flawed’ legal process. As critics point out, “The only process at work was intimidation and thuggery in the form of street demonstrations demanding his removal.” There is public concern that if the Chief Justice can be removed in such a manner, the removal of persons in lesser offices can also be accomplished extra-legally and even more easily to satisfy the interests of those in power.
The new government received an electoral mandate to democratize the ‘autocratic’ Executive Presidency, However, most people expect a judicious transition under a new parliament and a new Prime Minister after electoral reforms are passed along with other necessary constitutional changes. In contrast, the controversial methods being used by the interim government to abolish the Executive Presidency through the 19th Amendment violate Sri Lanka’s Constitutional process in significant ways. The proposed 19th Amendment to the Constitution upholds every Sri Lankan citizen’s right of access to information. Yet, the process being followed does not give the public the opportunity to express their views on this important legislation. There are some 18 petitions against the bill. However, it is reported that in the rush to enact the 19th Amendment, the legal Counselors appearing for the cases before the Supreme Court have not been given the chance to study the proposed amendments. Basic differences exist between the version of the 19th Amendment that was presented in the Sri Lankan Parliament on March 24 by Prime Minister Wickremesinghe and the version presented to the Supreme Court on April 1. Even some Ministers in Sirisena’s shaky government suspect a ‘constitutional conspiracy’: a hasty and secretive transfer of power from the Presidency to the Prime Minister with the ulterior motive of destabilizing and breaking up the country in the near term.
Local and international television and print media continue to bring charges against the former Rajapaksa government but overlook the dangers posed by the current Sri Lankan regime to the rule of law, democracy and freedom of expression. Discontent and protest are growing: massive rallies organized around the country by opposition parties are calling Mahinda Rajapaksa to contest the parliamentary elections. If the current regime does not honor its pledge to dissolve Parliament after the completion of its 100 days and hold parliamentary elections, greater resistance is bound to emerge.
*Dr. Asoka Bandarage is the author of the books, Colonialism in Sri Lanka, The Separatist Conflict in Sri Lanka and many other publications.