By Rasika Jayakody –
Sri Lanka, one of the oldest parliamentary democracies in Asia, faced its worst political crisis in 2018.
The legislature, which survived a three-decade-long civil war and two insurgencies, was on the brink of being superseded by a delusional and erratic Executive President. It was the judiciary that stepped up at a critical moment and saved the country from entering into a seemingly inescapable political abyss.
The year also marked the lowest ebb of President Maithripala Sirisena’s political journey, which saw its peak in January 2015 when he was elected the sixth Executive President with the promise of ushering in comprehensive reforms.
Although Sirisena will remain in office until the next Presidential election in 2020, he has already lost the moral right to occupy the post, as he irreversibly departed from the ‘January 08 mandate’ by attempting to stealthily appoint Mahinda Rajapaksa as Prime Minister through a spate of illegal and unconstitutional acts.
The defeat of the October 26 coup and the reappointment of Ranil Wickremesinghe as the Prime Minister on December 16 caused Sirisena public embarrassment. As Prof. Jayadeva Uyangoda aptly pointed out in an article, the incident has only earned him a place in history as the weakest political strategist Sri Lanka has ever seen.
Sirisena nurtures the unrealistic hope of becoming the Presidential candidate of the Rajapaksa group at the next Presidential election. Any party that is seriously considering victory at the next Presidential election will have to think twice before fielding Sirisena as a candidate. But whether he becomes a candidate or not, Sirisena, in my view, has zero chance of securing victory and he will be forced to retire after the next Presidential election.
The President will be lucky if he manages to escape prosecution after his retirement, when the shield of presidential immunity is removed, for the flagrant and willful violation of the Constitution and gross abuse of power displayed in October.
Moreover, the 51-day political standoff in 2018 also highlighted the need for abolishing the Executive Presidency—a recurring slogan at every national election since 1994. Although Sirisena was not the first Presidential candidate to promise the total abolition of Executive Presidency, he was, ironically, the one who came up with the most convincing plan to execute this promise, with an ambitious 100-day timeline.
Sirisena’s about-turn highlights the need for a more holistic approach to abolishing the Executive Presidency. All political parties that collectively reversed the October 26 coup must work towards achieving this feat in 2019, considering the total abolition of Executive Presidency as the core of the constitutional reform agenda.
It also gave Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe, who threw off almost every opportunity that came his way since 1994 (the year he became the leader of the United National Party) one last chance. In January 2015, many UNPers expected Wickremesinghe to be the wise statesman who would set the stage for comprehensive political and economic reforms. He threw that opportunity out of the window by surrounding himself with the likes of Arjuna Mahendran who made a mockery of good governance and transparency.
Even the results of the Local Government election, in which the UNP suffered a shocking defeat, did not alarm Wickremesinghe enough. There was hardly any change in his style of governance, even after the SLPP, the youngest political party in the country, pulled off a stunning victory at the LG polls.
In April, Wickremesinghe survived a no-confidence motion which he defeated with a healthy margin in Parliament. However, the Prime Minister failed to capitalise on this victory and consolidate the UNP’s position in the ‘unity government’.
It is against this backdrop that we have to analyze Wickremesinghe’s emergence at the end of the 51-day political standoff. Although the UNP Leader managed to come out of the political crisis unscathed by a prolonged political and legal battle, he has come under increasing pressure to deliver results within the next six months.
Should Wickremesinghe fail to cash in on this, his last chance, he will not only lose the premiership, but also the party leadership, which he has held on to since 1994. It is still a question of whether Wickremesinghe has understood how vulnerable he really is. Sadly, some of his recent Cabinet appointments and public statements on increasing the number of Cabinet portfolios have proven that Wickremesinghe is a man who will not learn from his previous mistakes.
Doom and gloom aside, 2018 also saw the brightest silver lining in terms of judicial independence. The seven-judge bench, headed by Chief Justice Nalin Perera, delivered a historic ruling making the premature dissolution of Parliament null and void. The ruling set the stage for the reversal of the coup exerting pressure on Mahinda Rajapaksa and his purported government to resign from office.
It is undeniable that the ‘Good Governance Government’, over the past there and a half years, found itself in many trying situations. However, one major achievement of the UNP-led unity government was strengthening the country’s democratic institutions, which acted as a check on the all-powerful Executive Presidency.
The independent commissions appointed under the 19th Amendment to the Constitution have empowered the law enforcement mechanisms and the judiciary of the country. The Constitutional Council has prevented the President from holding sway over high-profile appointments. It was these developments that took place over the last two months of 2018 that underscored the importance of political and constitutional reforms introduced mid-2015.