Vol. XLII No. 46 November 18, 2018

Crisis in Sri Lanka

SRI LANKA has been plunged into a political and constitutional crisis due to the arbitrary steps taken by Maithripala Sirisena in the past three weeks. The president dismissed Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe and swore in his erstwhile opponent Mahinda Rajapaksa as the prime minister on October 26.

It may be recalled that Sirisena, who belongs to the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP), had broken away from Rajapaksa. He had fought the elections and defeated Rajapaksa in January 2015 in alliance with Wickremesinghe’s United National Party (UNP). They formed a coalition government comprising the two main parties – the UNP and the SLFP.

It is the falling out between Sirisena and Wickremesinghe which has led to the current crisis.  In February this year, the Sri Lanka People’s Party, newly set-up under the patronage of Rajapaksa, registered a big victory in the local body elections.  This had deepened the crisis in the ruling coalition.  The fracturing of the coalition between the two main rival parties has also been due to the deepening economic crisis and rising discontent among the people.

The removal of Prime Minister Wickremesinghe was unconstitutional as the 19th amendment to the constitution, which was itself brought in by the Sirisena-Wickremesinghe alliance, had curbed some of the powers of the executive presidency.  Under the new provisions, the Prime Minister cannot be removed except by his losing majority in parliament. 

Sirisena resorted to a series of maneouvres to ensure that Rajapaksa remains the prime minister by proroguing parliament till November 16 to give time for Rajapaksa to muster the numbers required for a majority in parliament through horse-trading. By the time parliament was convened, Rajapaksa had failed to reach the majority mark of 113 and to avoid his defeat in the floor of the house, Sirisena arbitrarily dissolved parliament and announced elections on January 5. 

Again, under the 19th amendment to the constitution, parliament cannot be dissolved by the president in the first four and a half years of its term.  If the house has to be dissolved before this, it can be done only by a decision by two-third majority of parliament. Since the present parliament had completed only three years, the dissolution by the president was patently unconstitutional. 

The UNP and other opposition parties like the Tamil National Alliance and the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna petitioned the Supreme Court against the dissolution and a three-member bench headed by the chief justice stayed the proclamation of dissolution until December 7. It further restrained the Election Commission from preparing for elections on January 5.

The speaker of the parliament convened the house on the next day, on November 14, where a motion of no-confidence against Rajapaksa was carried by a majority.  The Rajapaksa supporters have challenged the voting procedure itself.  The crisis continues as President Sirisena has not accepted the passage of the no-confidence motion as valid.

Mainstream media in India is presenting the Sri Lankan situation as an outcome of the geo-political rivalries between China, India and the USA.  Rajapaksa is portrayed as pro-China and Wickremesinghe is seen to be pro-West and pro-India.  However, the present crisis cannot be attributed mainly to any external influence, or, geo-political rivalry. It has primarily arisen out of the failure of the SLFP-UNP alliance to consolidate the democratic transition ushered in, in 2015 and the failure to devise alternative policies which could have brought Sri Lanka out of the economic crisis.

The economic crisis itself is a result of the neoliberal policies pursued over the years. The Wickremesinghe government, given the UNP’s free market policies, intensified the crisis.  Growth in 2017 was less than 4 per cent; mounting debt and a balance of payments crisis had forced the government to go in for a three-year IMF bailout package of $1.5 billion from June 2016 which has stringent conditionalities.

The cuts in subsidy for essential items, the privatisation of State-owned enterprises, the slashing of public education and inflation – all affected the living conditions of the people. The recent period has seen struggles by different sections of the working people, including a strike by the plantation workers.

Though some steps were taken towards constitutional reforms and bringing normalcy back to the Tamil-speaking northern region, these were halting and could not progress given the growing rift between the president and the prime minister. The Tamil parties are genuinely apprehensive about the return of Rajapaksa to power. 

At the root of the threat to democracy is the executive presidency which came into place in 1978.  The unity government had promised to do away with the executive presidency. However, the 19th amendment could only curtail some of the powers of the executive president. The threat of authoritarianism, which was so rampant in the years of the Rajapaksa presidency still exists as the actions of President Sirisena testify.

Whichever way the present crisis is resolved, Sri Lanka cannot be put on the path of democratic advance and economic and social justice until the present policies of the ruling classes are dispensed with.

(November 14, 2018)