Late in the evening on Friday, October 26, the Sri Lankan president Maithripala Sirisena (MS) swore in Mahinda Rajapaksa (MR) as prime minister and declared that he had removed the existing prime minister Ranil Wickremesinghe (RW) from office, immediately triggering a constitutional crisis and upheaval, resulting in the president suspending parliament until November 16. As it stands, Sri Lanka currently has two people claiming to be prime minister.
To fully understand how bizarre and Byzantine Sri Lankan politics is, I need to fill in a little background. After the 1977 elections, the Sri Lankan constitution was changed and the country went from the British style parliamentary system with a strong executive prime minister to one modeled more closely on the French system, with a strong executive president independently elected of the parliament who then picks the prime minister who is usually the leader of the largest party in parliament or the one who can command a majority.
After first serving as a member of parliament and then as prime minister, MR was elected president in 2005 and re-elected in 2010. During the period of MR’s presidency, MS was a member of MR’s party and served as the minister of health in the cabinet and RW was the leader of the opposition. In 2014, MS and some other members of MR’s party defected to the opposition and he then ran for the position of president as part of a coalition with RW’s party. He won, thwarting MR’s effort to win a third term.
Upon taking office as president in January 2015, MS dissolved parliament and called for fresh elections. The coalition of his supporters (called the UPFA) and RW’s party won a majority and MS appointed RW as prime minister. MR ran for parliament in that election but failed in his attempt to become the prime minister because his party could not gain a majority and he instead became just an MP and leader of the opposition. This was widely thought to be the twilight of MR’s autocratic political career.
Now MS’s UPFA faction has abandoned their support of RW in parliament and joined up with MR’s party once again. MS has fired RW and brought in MR, the very person whose downfall he engineered with his own defection in 2014, to serve under him as his prime minister, just as he served under MR before 2014.
But those dramatic shifts in alliances do not comprise all the weirdness! For the last four decades the Sri Lankan constitution has been changed multiple times, often on an ad hoc basis, in order to enable the ruling government to ram through any measure that the courts ruled violated the existing constitution. As a result, the constitution is now a large and unwieldy and incoherent document. (There used to be a joke that a person walked into a bookstore to buy a copy of the constitution and was told by the clerk that they did not stock periodicals.)
The last change was initiated in 2015 by MS himself as part of the effort to curb the wide powers of the president which he claimed had been abused by his predecessor MR. One of those changes was to remove language that allowed the president to remove the prime minister at will. Under the 19th amendment, once appointed by the president, the prime minister’s office becomes vacant only if he resigns the office or ceases to be a member of parliament or parliament is dissolved. Since none of those things have happened, RW claims that he is still the prime minister under the constitution. So right now, the country has two people claiming to be the prime minister. Hence the constitutional crisis, created entirely by MS acting rashly and high-handedly without taking into account the limits of his powers.
As Asanga Welikala writes, what has taken place has all the markings of a constitutional coup.
If the parliamentary numbers have changed since Wickremesinghe’s confidence vote in April in favour of a majority now supportive of Rajapaksa by, among other things, the withdrawal of the UPFA from the national government – presumably the basis for tonight’s presidential acts – then it is also not clear why Sirisena and Rajapaksa did not choose to take the constitutional path to removing Wickremesinghe by defeating him in Parliament first. The crisis will be prolonged if Rajapaksa cannot swiftly demonstrate his command of Parliament, but the strategy he and Sirisena have followed tonight shows that they have chosen to seize the political initiative and momentum by the element of surprise, with the probable intention of consolidating their hold on the state machinery and in particular the police and armed forces over the weekend, before conforming to constitutional and parliamentary niceties. They would also quite correctly have concluded that technical illegalities would not effectively be justiciable, because it is unlikely in the extreme that the Sri Lankan courts would risk a venture into such a high-stakes political game.
This kind of behaviour of course is entirely normal in Rajapaksa, and to his credit, he has never pretended to be anything other than a banana republic presidential populist. But Sirisena was elected in 2015 exactly to instantiate changes to curtail this dubious and destructive strain in Sri Lankan politics. His descent from the heroic standard-bearer of high idealism to a despised villain of the lowest form of low politics has been truly Miltonian.
One thing that must be borne in mind is that Sri Lankan politics has long had a history of political defections that have led to new alliances. Very rarely have these changes been brought about because of principled stands or disputes over policy, though that is the cover story put out by the defectors. The usual reasons are petty and venal, the product of secret backroom deals. Bribery has often credibly been alleged in facilitating changes, either in the form of cash or the promise of cabinet positions or other forms of patronage that enable people to amass wealth. Corruption at the highest levels has long been endemic.
Sri Lanka is currently in a state of turmoil, but unfortunately that is not an unusual state. It remains to be seen if violence breaks out on a large scale.