Photo courtesy of Bloomberg

On July 5, in the midst of a worsening economic crisis, Cardinal Malcolm Ranjith said that President Gotabaya Rajapaksa no longer has the moral right to remain in office. This statement is quite significant in that it raises several questions regarding the moral right to govern.

There is no question that President Rajapaksa is the legally elected president of Sri Lanka. He won with a resounding victory at the presidential elections of 2019 and his party, Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP), managed to secure a majority of seats in the general elections of 2020.

In such a context, the pertinent question is what is the moral right to govern and how have the President and the Prime Minister lost this right, compelling them through a massive buildup of public opinion to issue statements that they will resign. It is as yet uncertain as to whether they would.

There is a distinction between legality and legitimacy. Legality derives from the black and white letters of the law and legal procedures. Legitimacy, however, has a deeper meaning. It encompasses the moral right to govern. The moral right to govern stems from public opinion as to what is right and wrong. Legitimacy has been described as having two forms: descriptive legitimacy – the social fact that people believe some person or institution has the moral right to rule and normative legitimacy – genuinely having the moral right to rule.

While there is no question of the legality of President Rajapaksa’s office as president, the people have clearly and loudly, as the events of July 9 show, questioned the legitimacy of the current president continuing to hold office. From 2019 to the present, Sri Lanka has spiralled into ever worsening turmoil. The current economic crisis has brought the country to a halt. Gas shortages, fuel shortages, power cuts, deaths in fuel queues and rising food prices are just some of the issues the country is facing. Citizens’ protests that began sporadically in the country have grown into mass protests and the public believe, and rightly so, that President Rajapaksa and his government are responsible for the desperate situation the country is in today. The people are questioning the mandate that they themselves gave Gotabaya Rajapaksa to become president in 2019. That is how the ruler has lost his moral right to govern.

For an incumbent president to tender his resignation is not a violation of the constitution. Article 38 (1) b of the constitution provides that the president can resign his office by a writing a letter addressed to the Speaker. Nor is it a violation of the constitution for the prime minister to resign from office during his tenure. Article 47 (2) b clearly states that the prime minister can resign from office by a writing a letter addressed to the President.

What the future will hold is uncertain but one thing is abundantly clear – when the president has lost his moral right to govern, he is in a very precarious situation. So is the country.