When President Maithripala Sirisena sacked Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe on 26th October 2018, and prorogued Parliament until 16th November, he injected new meaning to Sri Lanka Tourist Development Authority’s global sales pitch, ‘a land like no other.’ Indeed, in what land other than Lanka would a sitting Prime Minister be sacked without his knowledge in the late evening of a Friday with the cover of the impending weekend, followed by a gazette notification, also issued to confirm the sacking? For me, as a non-constitutional expert, the President’s Friday evening political stunt appears illegal and unconstitutional.
Since the 19th amendment to the constitution was introduced in 2015 with the blessings of both Sirisena and Wickremesinghe, the idea was to curb the unmitigated power of the executive presidency to remove the Prime Minister arbitrarily. Under its provisions, the Prime Minister will cease to be in office only due to death, resignation, or by losing his position as a Member of Parliament. Alternatively, this can also happen if the government itself lost the confidence of Parliament if it was defeated at the introduction of the annual budget or in a vote of no confidence (Articles 46: 2 and 48). But none of these have happened. Though the President has the power to appoint a new Prime Minister, it can only be done if the incumbent has lost power in one of these three ways.
In all probability, the President appears to have been given wrong legal advice that the Prime Minister can be sacked in terms of Article 42: 4, which states that the President will appoint as Prime Minister a Member of Parliament who the President thinks has the overall confidence of Parliament. This is obviously a reference to a numbers game. That is, who has the most support of the MPs in Parliament? In the case of Sri Lanka’s unenlightened Parliament of 225, one must have the support of at least 113 criminally inclined souls for one to be Prime Minister. But in sacking Wickremesinghe and appointing Rajapaksa as Prime Minister, the President seems to have discarded this basic mathematical assumption, and interpreted the provisions quite literally: He does not think Wickremesinghe has the confidence of the Parliament while he thinks Rajapaksa has.
But I leave it up to constitutional experts and the Sri Lankan Supreme Court (if the matter comes to court) to decide the legality of the matter. For me, what is far more important, are the ethics and the morality of this exercise. Right now, Sri Lanka seems to have two Prime Ministers, two cabinets, and one assumes that the country will race towards development twice as fast now while increasing its levels of corruption and political horse-trading by twice as much. All this, in the midst of considerable uncertainty over the long-term survival of its fragile and disrupted democracy. A country like no other, indeed. Which country with leaders of any degree of commonsense, decency, a sense of ethics and an appreciation of morality would instigate a constitutional coup to oust a sitting Prime Minister in a late Friday evening without informing the incumbent, the Speaker of Parliament, and let the act be known to the country via the favorite television channel of the newly appointed Prime Minister, followed by a thuggish take over of all government-owned media outlets by people loyal to the newcomer? Sirisena in his election campaign for the presidency ran on an anti-corruption campaign whose main reference was Rajapaksa’s nepotism in public appointments, mismanagement of the economy and the dismantling of the country’s democratic practices. How on earth that very person was appointed as the new Prime Minister is based on the kind of logic that would baffle both Machiavelli and Kautilya while it is also a shameless betrayal of every single person who voted for Sirisena in the last presidential election. But then, to expect ethics or morality from almost any member of Sri Lanka’s current Parliament or the President himself, is mere wishful thinking.
Wickremesinghe for his part has not done much to make the odd relationship between his United National Party and Sirisena’s faction of the Sri Lanka Freedom Party, which together constituted the government work. The political differences between Sirisena and Wickremesinghe were not merely ideological. They were also cultural and class, and therefore also a matter of ways of seeing the world. It was quite shocking to see Wickremesinghe’s press release after his recent visit to India in which he openly blamed Sirisena for the delay in implementing India-backed projects in Sri Lanka. While this is a fact, this is not playing smart politics, and certainly not soon after meeting the Prime Minister of India. It is this overall state of affairs that Sirisena referred to in an unconvincing speech to the nation, the day after the initial part of the drama unfolded. He noted, Wickremesinghe and his inner circle belonged to a privileged class and did not understand the aspirations of ordinary people, and went ahead with business of governance, as it was a game they played. This characterization is not wrong. Sirisena also talked much about corruption in which he implicated Wickremesinghe, in particular with regard to the non-action on the Central Bank bond scam. This is also a fact. What boggles the mind however, is the appointment of Rajapaksa who Sirisena himself has accused multiple times of corrupt practices not too long ago as the new Prime Minister, and then allow the swearing in of a new cabinet full of people similarly accused of corruption, but not investigated during the last four years during which both Wickremesinghe and Sirisena governed.
The lack of legality and the constitutional validity of Sirisena’s action might have been somewhat dissipated if an immediate floor vote was conducted in an emergency session of parliament to see if Rajapaksa actually has the numbers he claims. Also, Wickremesinghe’s government was due to present its budget in Parliament on November 5th. And that would have been an ideal and legitimate forum to defeat the budget vote, establish Wickremesinghe’s lack of support in the house, where Rajapakasa could have shown his own strength in numbers. That would have been the legally and ethically correct way to depose of Wickremesinghe. Such a course of action would have made Rajapaksa’s ascendency far more legitimate. Instead of doing any of this, by proroguing of Parliament until November 16th, Sirisena has given Rajapaksa and his supporters enough time to literally ‘buy’ the support they need. As every Lankan knows from experience, Sri Lanka’s parliament is like a veritable auction house where elected MPs can be purchased by the highest bidder irrespective of the hopes and wishes of the hapless voters who have elected them.
While this drama unfolds, the mood in the street in general is one of disinterest even though there was a large and peaceful show of anger against what many consider an illegal act in Colombo on October 30th. But much of the general sentiment of fatigue and indifference comes from the woefully unpopular and ineffective government Wickremesinghe led as well as his own lackluster style of leadership in a backdrop of mounting costs of living. After all, except a much needed respite for the democratic spirit to be rekindled in some way, the Sirisena-Wickremesinghe coalition’s track record is a litany of failures: no significant development initiatives; no significant prosecutions over allegations of corruption, political violence and murder brought against the previous Rajapaksa regime; no respite for ordinary citizens from mounting costs of living; no progress towards the much touted abolition of the executive presidency upon which both campaigned; no signs of addressing issues of corruption within the ranks of the government itself. But this state of affairs is not merely Wickremesinghe’s doing. It is as much the result of Sirisena’s equally uninspiring leadership.
In these sad circumstances, Sirisena’s actions have ensured that Sri Lanka as a banana republic is now truly and very clearly established where its parliament is an open playground for the powerful and the immoral, and the country’s economy, foreign relations and even sovereignty are fair game to those with political clout. If William Shakespeare was asked to do a play on Lankan politics, one of his lines that ordinary people like us would have remembered might have been, “Lanka is a stage, and all the men and women merely players: they have their exits and their entrances; and one man in his time plays many parts.”
A land like no other, indeed.