Democracy under siege

Neville de Silva speculates on Sri Lanka’s democratic future amid the chaos afflicting the country in the wake of political treachery

Sri Lanka has always prided itself on being one of Asia’s oldest democracies.For 88 years the country,previously known as Ceylon, has enjoyed universal franchise. Men and women gained the right to vote at the same time when Ceylon was still under British colonial rule.

But that pride in the country’s history as a democratic polity is currently under serious threat.Constitutionally contentious actions in October and thereafter by President Maithripala Sirisena, Sri Lanka’s head of state since January 2015, has brought the country to a point where its citizens are unsure who is governing them.

In 2014, to thesurprise of then President Mahinda Rajapaksa, Sirisena defected from the government and contested his own leader, defeating him.It was not his popularity that won Sirisena the election but the collective efforts of a coalition of almost 50disparate political and civil society forces, which supported him primarilyin order to oust, as many felt, an increasingly authoritarian Rajapaksa.

Now,four years later,Sirisena has sprung another surprise. Acting stealthily on the night of October 26, he suddenlysacked his prime minister, Ranil Wickremesinghe,bringing to a head the growing conflict between president and premier.

Sirisena then appointed Mahinda Rajapaksa, his arch political enemy whom he had harshly condemned in recent years,as prime minister. He also suspended parliament until November 16,giving him time to assemble a new cabinet of ministers and try to win over MPs from other parties to swell his parliamentary ranks, which lacked majority support.

That was his miscalculation.The aggrieved Ranil Wickremesing he argued that he had the confidence of the majority in parliament and challenged the controversial former president,now Sirisena’s prime minister,to a floor vote to demonstrate he commanded a majority in the 225-member legislature.

Wickremesinghe argued that he had the confidence of the majority in parliament

Clearly Mahinda Rajapaksa did not have a parliamentary majority to call the shots,although he is still vastly popular in the country. The near three-week time lag before parliament reconvened was to give Sirisena and his new prime minister enough time to attempt to legitimise the government.

Changing political sides for monetary gain or other inducements is a practice common in Sri Lanka since post-independence times and is not uncommon elsewhere in Asia.About half a dozen MPs from Wickremesinghe’s UNP and other smaller parties switched as substantial amounts of money allegedly changed hands and ministerial positions with a plethora of perks were dangled before them.

While this horse-trading continued, parliament – which President Sirisena, under local and international pressure, reconvened earlier than announced –became a miniature battle field from November 14 to 16, when civilised parliamentary conduct was abandoned and orderly proceedings made impossible.

Those three days were bedlam, during which the Speaker’s chair was flung away, the desk with electronic controls broken and copies of the constitution, the Holy Bible,the rule book, cushions and other moveables were hurled at the Speaker and MPs on the other side.For the first time in the history of parliament, a phalanx of policemen entered the chamber to provide a protective cordon for the Speaker. MPs from the Sirisena-Rajapaksa side, who had caused this unprecedented chaos and turned the country’s legislature into a madhouse, had but one intention: to ensure that a motion to allow Wickremesing he and his supporters to prove their parliamentary strength would not be passed.

Armed with a list of 122 names of MPs who had expressed support for Wickremesinghe, the Speaker took a voice vote above the din as it seemed the only way to affirm their opinions. He then announced the motion as passed. The voice vote was repeated the next day as well as recorded in Hansard and now made public.

AGGRIEVED: Sacked PM Ranil Wickremesinghe
AGGRIEVED: Sacked PM Ranil Wickremesinghe

But when the Speaker communicated the result to President Sirisena,he refused to accept it,thus negating parliamentary procedure, which permits a voice vote. Instead, he asked for a vote by name or electronic means. How anybody could take such a vote under such disgracefully shambolic conditions, which were obviously intended to stop the ‘vote by name’demanded, the president failed to explain, though he could have restored order to permit it.

By then the situation had taken a turn for the worse. Well aware that the gamble to win over enough votes to show a majority had failed, the president issued a Proclamation dissolving parliament and declaring a general election on January 5 next year.This opened the doors for the United National Party (UNP), led by Wickremesing he and other parties, to petition the Supreme Court, the final arbiter on interpreting the constitution, against the president for violating the constitution.

A three-member bench of the Supreme Court, including the newly appointed Chief Justice Nalin Perera, issued an interim order preventing the dissolution of parliament until the court heard the petitions for and against the presidential proclamation over three days before announcing its ruling on December 7.

Sri Lanka and the international community are now eagerly awaiting the Supreme Court ruling, perhaps by an enlarged bench as called for by the government side.

But the Supreme Court decision would settle only the question of the constitutionality of the presidential order to dissolve parliament and hold elections. The legality of Wickremesinghe’s sacking and the appointment of Rajapaksa as prime minister would have to be settled by a parliamentary vote which has so far been prevented by raucous and belligerent behaviour by a government that is doubtful of a majority.

However, a real test of legitimacy may not be far away. The Rajapaksa government may have to present a vote-on-account since it would not have time to present a budget for next year.Whether the defeat in parliament of such avote leads to the resignation of the cabinet, as it would if a budget is defeated, is a matter left to constitutional experts to argue.

Parliament became a miniature battlefield from November 14 to 16

Yet it could end up in total chaos as the government has no money to pay the salaries of public officials and other employees, and make other payments for three months at least during which the vote-on-account is valid. And even if a resignation is ruled out, being out-voted is proof enough that the government lacks a parliamentary majority.

When the UNP threw in its lot with the ‘common candidate’ Maithripala Sirisena at the January 2015 presidential election, it had little in common with him. After all, for several years he’d been the General Secretary of the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP), a longtime opponent of the UNP.In ideological terms, in economic and foreign policy the UNP is pro-Western and neo-liberal,favouring globalisation. It is vastly different from the more national-oriented, left-of-centre SLFP, whose foreign policyis historically rooted in the non-aligned movement, of which it was a founder member.

When the UNP agreed to support Sirisena, who in turn pledged to appoint Wickremesinghe as prime minister, it was a marriage of convenience, not of true minds.What came to irk Sirisena more and more was the UNP’s firm hold on economic policy-making, which virtually excluded him. Wickremesinghe, meanwhile, had surrounded himself with a cabal of elitist schoolmates who ruled the roost, much to Sirisena’s understandable chagrin.

Then a bond scam involving the Central Bank, its governor (a Wickremesinghe nominee) and the governor’s son-in-law gave Sirisena a lever he could use against the UNP.All this happened in the early days of the National Unity Government.

REAPPOINTED: Mahinda Rajapaksa, the new PM and Sirisena’s one-time enemy
REAPPOINTED: Mahinda Rajapaksa, the new PM and Sirisena’s one-time enemy

If Sirisena felt that he was being left out of decision-making, especially on economic policy,he was not entirely wrong. He was happy travelling the world, quite often with his family in tow, exploiting opportunities he never had before, leaving the UNP to mind the store, which suited Wickremesinghe and his elitist clique.

But now, with presidential and parliamentary elections about two years away and the people facing increasing economic hardship, Sirisena is worried. Although he had pledged before and after the 2015 elections that he would be a one-term president, the exercise of power has changed his view and he has been trying to strike a deal with anybody who will back him for a second term. The UNP has apparently turned down such an arrangement so he has latched on to Rajapaksa, who is keen to return to power politics even as prime minister.

If the Sri Lankan public has turned its back on Sirisena for abandoning his election promises and now trying to strangle the democratic institutions he pledged to protect, the international community has done the same.The pro forma congratulatory messages that foreign governments send to newly-appointed leaders never reached the new prime minister. Stories in circulationsay only two countries congratulated Mahinda Rajapaksa – China and Burundi. The rest of the world has been conspicuously silent, including Sri Lanka’s closest neighbour, India.

India’s silence is understandable. At a cabinet meeting a few months back, Sirisena spoke of a plot to assassinate him, involving India in it by innuendo, as The Hindu newspaper prominently reported – though he later tried to explain it away,even telephoning Prime Minister Narendra Modi to say it was a misinterpretation.

But however he tries to backtrack, Sirisena now finds himself in a pickle and the country in a mess.


Neville de Silva is a veteran Sri Lankan journalist who held senior roles in Hong Kong at The Standard and worked in London for Gemini News Service. He has been a correspondent for foreign media including the New York Times and Le Monde. More recently he was Sri Lanka’s deputy high commissioner in London

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