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What is the Sri Lanka political crisis all about?

November 10, 2018 08:26 pm | Updated 11:01 pm IST

Sri Lanka’s newly-appointed Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa and President Maithripala Sirisena look on during a rally near the Parliament in Colombo on November 5, 2018.

Sri Lanka’s newly-appointed Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa and President Maithripala Sirisena look on during a rally near the Parliament in Colombo on November 5, 2018.

What is it?

Late on November 9, President Maithripala Sirisena dissolved the Sri Lankan Parliament and called a snap general election for January 5. The announcement came within hours of his party spokesman publicly admitting to lacking a majority in Parliament. Mr. Sirisena’s front was aiming for a majority to push its controversially installed Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa through the legislature.

How did it come about?

Sri Lanka has been facing a political crisis for a fortnight now, with Mr. Sirisena abruptly sacking his Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe and replacing him with Mr. Rajapaksa, a former President, apparently defying the Constitution or more specifically, its 19th Amendment — a 2015 legislation that clipped the powers of the President significantly.

Resisting Mr. Sirisena’s move, Mr. Wickremesinghe maintained that he was the legitimate Prime Minister and challenged Mr. Rajapaksa to a vote in Parliament to test their claims to majority. Mr. Sirisena had earlier suspended Parliament until November 16, possibly to muster strength for his front, but summoned the House for November 14, amid growing pressure.

Why does it matter?

Both decisions of Mr. Sirisena — sacking Mr. Wickremesinghe and dissolving Parliament — have raised serious questions about constitutional validity. As for the dismissal of Mr. Wickremesinghe, the 19th Amendment removed the President’s authority to arbitrarily sack his Prime Minister. Under the Constitution, the Prime Minister’s office does not fall vacant unless in circumstances of his death, voluntary resignation or loss of majority in a crucial vote in Parliament. Since none of these is true in the current situation, a new appointment by the President is constitutionally ruled out. Some lawyers point to a discrepancy between the English and Sinhala texts of the Constitution and claim the President, as per the Sinhala version, still has the power to remove a Prime Minister. Other constitutional lawyers have argued that while there is a discrepancy in language and framing, the import and essence of the Sinhala text is consistent with that in English, especially when read along with the rest of the Constitution in Sinhala. On the dissolution of Parliament, the President does not have the powers to dissolve Parliament within four-and-a-half years of its convening, unless requested by two-thirds of its members, as per the 19th Amendment. The President’s side has invoked Article 33(2) C that lists the powers to summon, prorogue and dissolve Parliament, in addition to his existing powers. All the same, critics have noted that while the Article is a general enumeration of his powers, it is the 19th Amendment’s specific provision that must prevail in such a situation.

What lies ahead?

The political flux over the past two weeks was the culmination of a bitter power struggle between Mr. Sirisena and Mr. Wickremesinghe within the ruling coalition. The two leaders, from traditionally rival parties and with incompatible ideologies, had joined hands to form the government in 2015, ousting Mr. Rajapaksa. In about three-and-a-half years, they fell apart . Amid the pressure of a Rajapaksa comeback , Mr. Sirisena chose to side with him.

The conduct of elections will depend on the Election Commission’s position on the development and possible legal hurdles, since Mr. Wickremesinghe’s United National Party (UNP) has vowed to move the Supreme Court on the “illegal” dissolution of Parliament. From the time the 19th Amendment capped the Presidency at two terms, Mr. Rajapaksa has been eager to return as Prime Minister. But he is now with Mr. Sirisena, who brings with him at least part of his unpopular coalition government’s incumbency. Mr. Wickremesinghe, on the other hand, is faced with a dual challenge — some within his party have been demanding a new leader for some time, while those backing him are aware of his falling political stock amid a growing economic crisis.

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