Dramatic twists in Sri Lanka's political turmoil
Ever since President Maithripala Sirisena dismissed Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe and appointed former President Mahinda Rajapaksa as the new prime minister on October 26, there have been several twists in the developing political drama. The power struggle has not ended and people in the island are now clearly divided.
Soon after Sirisena removed Wickremesinghe without a floor test and prorogued the parliament until November 14, parliament Speaker Karu Jayasuriya (an MP from UNP, who is theoretically neutral) declared that the presidential decree was illegal and called upon the president to reconvene the parliament so that it can prove who exactly has the majority — Wickreme-singhe or Rajapaksa. Ranil Wickremesinghe also defied the dismissal and refused to leave the prime minister's residence, claiming that he still enjoyed majority support in the parliament and was the prime minister. Wickremesinghe could not go to the court as the Constitution empowers the president to choose the prime minister of his government and has the power to prorogue or dissolve the parliament.
Sirisena's power alteration game was based on parliamentary seats controlled by Wickremesinghe's United National Party (UNP) and Rajapaksa's Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) in the 225-seat parliament. Although the National Unity government has collapsed, Wickremesinghe currently has 125 MPs on his side, while Rajapaksa has 98 legislators supporting him. To win a confidence vote, Rajapaksa needs 113 MPs—that is, he has to convince at least 15 MPs to switch sides. Naturally, Sirisena prorogued the parliament until November 14 so that Rajapaksa could win over or buy up the MPs in the intervening period. According to reports, Rajapaksa offered between rupees 100 million and 500 million to buy some MPs. There are also reports that China was helping Rajapaksa to finance these defections.
However, Sirisena soon realised that Rajapaksa did not succeed in his poaching. Thus, on November 9, Sirisena dissolved the parliament and announced fresh elections to be held on January 5, 2019. The new parliament is supposed to be convened on January 17, 2019.
Sirisena's decision to dissolve the parliament did not go unchallenged. Immediately, three political parties including UNP, which together enjoy absolute majority in the parliament, petitioned the Supreme Court against the president's decision. On November 13, a three-judge panel headed by Chief Justice Nalin Perera issued a temporary injunction on the president's order to dissolve the parliament. The court said it will deliver a verdict on December 7 after the full hearing. The judges also ordered the Independent Election Commission to halt preparations for the January 5 election. The court's decision was a boost for Ranil Wickremesinghe's UNP and bad news for Sirisena.
The decision compelled Sirisena to call the parliament to session on November 14. As the parliament got into session, Speaker Karu Jayasuriya hastily arranged a confidence vote on Rajapaksa. Apparently, 122 MPs in voice vote said they did not support Mahinda Rajapaksa. They also reportedly signed a letter expressing their confidence in Ranil Wickremesinghe. The speaker then informed the president that Rajapaksa did not enjoy the parliament's confidence.
The following day, when the parliament got into session, a defeated Rajapaksa stood up and called for a fresh election to decide who should run the government. Speaker Jayasuriya announced that the country had no government. "As of now, there is no prime minister, no cabinet and no government in Sri Lanka. I do not recognise anyone as prime minister," announced the speaker. While the parliament was in session, a fracas broke out with MPs exchanging blows and throwing projectiles at the speaker, who quickly left the chamber. The deadlocked parliament actually helps Rajapaksa to gain strength.
However, the No Confidence Motion (NCM) against Rajapaksa has turned invalid as the speaker did not follow parliamentary procedures. The government announced that the newly appointed Prime Minister Rajapaksa will continue to be in his position as the NCM was unconstitutional. Without a formal no-confidence on a financial bill, the NCM is not binding. Only a moral victory for the UNP.
Nonetheless, Sirisena said that newly appointed Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa will continue as the NCM was invalid. This announcement has actually immobilised the administration—not knowing whether to follow instructions from Wickremesinghe or Rajapaksa. Sirisena's move has been criticised by India, Japan, and the US, while China has recognised Rajapaksa as the new prime minister.
Since Sirisena's unconstitutional coup, Sri Lanka's economic situation has suddenly become acute. Wickremesinghe, while talking to Reuters, said that the US and Japan have frozen more than a billion dollars of development aid that may cause a balance of payment crunch. Increased US interest rates have triggered an outflow of more than 85 billion rupees from Colombo Stock Exchange up to October 2018, and in addition, another 11 billion rupees have gone out since Wickremesinghe's ouster. The current trade deficit is USD 6.4 billion, and the debt servicing bill for 2019 has risen to USD 4 billion. The Sri Lankan Rupee has also depreciated against the dollar by about 14 percent.
Meanwhile, the supporters of UNP and SLFP have been frantically manoeuvring to show off their strength in the streets. These rallies are worrying as showdowns can erupt into violence. People are confused and want a stable democratic government.
It is ironic that Sirisena who once revolted against Rajapaksa and ran the presidential election in 2014 to resist Rajapaksa's authoritarian rule has foolishly got entangled in a Machiavellian political conspiracy. He had promised that he will bring about balance in president's powers, resolve demands of the minority Tamil people, and initiate institutional changes in Sri Lankan politics. Sadly, he has flipped over and re-joined Rajapaksa. He has miscalculated his strategy that he can dump Wickremesinghe and induce defections from UNP to bolster Rajapaksa's SLFP.
In all likelihood, the Supreme Court will say that dissolution of the parliament is in line with the constitutional powers of the president. It is also likely that Mahinda Rajapaksa will win the January 2019 election, rule in a Marcosian style, and throw Sirisena to the dustbin of politics.
Democracy in the developing countries, unfortunately, are in recession.
Mahmood Hasan is former ambassador and secretary of Bangladesh government.