Featured image by Amalini De Sayrah
Since 26 October, virtually every gambit and calculation of the instigators of the Sri Lankan constitutional coup have failed. Initially, they relied on the element of surprise to cover up the illegality of removing the serving Prime Minister enjoying the confidence of the House. They calculated that ‘the return of the strongman’ narrative would, through a mixture of discontent, financial inducement, and fear, open the floodgates of crossovers, so that a new majority could be shown in short order. When this did not happen as quickly as they had probably hoped, they prorogued Parliament to buy themselves some time, while the financial stakes could be raised and quite possibly other tactics be deployed to induce sufficient crossovers for a parliamentary majority. Despite rumours of unprecedented sums being offered, the anticipated floodgate remained firmly shut. In one of the more intriguing episodes in Sri Lankan politics, it seems the prospect of massive financial gain was weighed against other factors by MPs, but quite what these weightier countervailing pressures were, we are yet to discover.
As the hours stretched into days, and days into weeks, the plotters knew the game was up and that recalling Parliament would simply affirm their lack of numbers. So, like the surprised thief who commits an unpremeditated murder, they compounded the illegal transfer of power with an even more clearly illegal act, by purporting to dissolve Parliament without having the constitutional authority to do so. This was challenged in the Supreme Court, which indicated that a prima facie case of illegality had been made out by granting the petitioners interim relief in the form of a stay order on the presidential proclamation of dissolution, until early December when the matter could be heard in full. This decision of the Supreme Court has placed an unavoidable question mark over the legitimacy and legality of all the ill-advised presidential actions since 26 October, not merely the narrow question of the impugned dissolution. Since the Supreme Court cannot be dismissed in the way political opponents or protesting citizens can be, this has multiplied the already severe political embarrassment of having failed to show a majority in Parliament.
Within less than 24 hours after this setback, Parliament reconvened today, where the Speaker and the leaders of the parties constituting the majority in the House acted swiftly and decisively to suspend Standing Orders and take a vote of no confidence in the pretender to the office of Prime Minister. There is explicit sanction for this in the Standing Orders (135 and 136), as well as the conventions of inherent authority of the Speaker in upholding the powers, rights and privileges of Parliament. Reduced to crude if futile tactics of disruption in the absence of numbers, the unconstitutional government has refused to recognise the vote.
In this as in everything else since the start of the coup, their stock in trade has been outright lying and disinformation, selective, hypocritical, and ultimately farcical attempts at deploying legal authority to defend the legally indefensible, and a big dose of both physical and verbal threat and intimidation. The problem is, this seems to be a counterproductive political strategy in Sri Lanka nowadays. Rajapaksa’s fabled golden touch has deserted him, and he looks increasingly like yesterday’s man in the post-2015 new Sri Lanka: the moth-eaten lion of ethnonationalism utterly out of place in a changing society with increasingly democratising instincts. The consequence is that their coup tactics serve to remind those who have forgotten what their deplorable governing style was like before 2015, they unite various factions of moderate opinion in the country that would not otherwise unite against them, they re-galvanise those who voted for systemic change in 2015, and they revive those who were disenchanted and demoralised by the poor performance of the reform government since 2015.
In short, their behaviour is showing them up for what they actually are: a nasty and brutish gang of political thugs and constitutional vandals led by a clan of has-been warlords, who are desperate enough to do anything, and anything at all, in order to grab and maintain power at any cost, and who have been let in through the door by a hopeless yokel fortuitously placed in the office of President.
In terms of the law of the constitution and the conventions of democracy, the stiff resistance shown by the legal Prime Minister and his united Cabinet and parliamentary coalition, Parliament, the Supreme Court, civil society, political parties, and inspirationally, by ordinary Sri Lankan citizens of all walks of life and all political persuasions, the defeats in the Supreme Court and Parliament should really be the coup de grâce on the coup d’état.
But this is unlikely. Graceful exits are not in the playbook of people like Rajapaksa and Sirisena. They have bent and broken the rules, and lost the game, but they will never accept defeat. Like grotesquely spoilt children, they know that they can raise the levels of unacceptable behaviour to a high bar by exploiting the concern of the adults in the room to avoid others getting hurt. This deserves our contempt and opprobrium, but there is a reason why we should think of de-escalating at this crucial moment.
Moral victories have been won, both Parliament and Supreme Court came down on the side of constitutional democracy. But unless a way out is made out for cornered animals, we can all get killed. This is why there should now be a concerted effort to get a political agreement among all parliamentary parties including the SLPP and UPFA to agree to a dissolution of Parliament and an agreed date for fresh elections. That agreement will enable Parliament to vote for the dissolution by the necessary two-thirds majority and restore constitutional due process. And it will be the safety valve that can ensure the anger and bitterness created so unnecessarily by the attempted coup can be channelled constructively towards a fresh beginning in a new Parliament. Every other scenario entails merely the continuation of a suppurating and poisonous canker at the heart of the state.
Editor’s Note: Read more about the current political situation here.