New twists in Sri Lanka’s political crisis fuel uncertainty

Colombo, Sri Lanka – For a brief moment on Thursday, it appeared as though Sri Lankan politicians might be able to return soon to the country’s suspended parliament to thrash out their differences over who should be prime minister – and thus end an acrimonious power struggle that has shaken the South Asian nation.

The idea took shape in the morning when newly appointed Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa told academics at his office that President Maithripala Sirisena had decided to lift the suspension and resume sessions on Monday.

The declaration was nearly as shocking as Sirisena’s decision on October 26 to fire Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe and replace him with Rajapaksa, a popular and controversial former leader that the president had defeated in a 2015 election.

Critics said Wickremesinghe’s ouster was the first illegal transfer of power since Sri Lanka established an electoral democracy in 1931. Citing constitutional amendments passed in 2015, they also argued that the president does not have the authority to sack a prime minister.

Still, many expected Sirisena to withstand mounting local and international pressure and stick to his apparent plan to give Rajapaksa time to muster support in the 225-member legislature.

That’s why Wickremesinghe, who maintains he commands majority in the House and has been calling for a parliamentary vote, was quick to celebrate when the news of Rajapaksa’s statement broke.

“The people’s voices have been heard,” he said in a triumphant post on Twitter. “Democracy will prevail.”

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The mood at Temple Trees, the prime minister’s official residence, where Wickremesinghe has remained holed up over the past week, was jubilant. 

But the day dragged on without an official statement from the president’s office. Then in the late afternoon, two associates of Rajapaksa made an abrupt u-turn in a news conference, saying Sirisena will keep parliament shut until November 16 in line with his initial suspension order.

But legislators Mahindananda Aluthgamage and Susil Premajayantha did not stop there. They said that even when parliament reconvenes, the United People’s Freedom Alliance (UPFA) – a coalition between Sirisena and Rajapaksa’s parties – does not plan to hold a confidence vote and allow legislators to choose between the two leaders claiming the prime minister’s role.

“We have decided to convene parliament on November 16,” Aluthgamage told reporters. “That’s because we need time to present a people-friendly budget.”

He added: “There is no vote scheduled for November 16.”

No vote

The move deals a severe blow to Wickremesinghe’s chances of survival as prime minister.

Many believe Wickremesinghe, whose popularity has declined amid widespread anger over the rising cost of living, will only be able to remain in the post if the matter is put to a vote on the parliament floor without delay. That’s because the UNP has a slight edge over the Sirisena-led UPFA: prior to the crisis, the UNP commanded the support of 106 legislators compared to their rivals’ 96.

Rajapaksa, who ruled the country from 2005 to 2015 and has been accused of grave human rights abuses and corruption, is also unlikely to gain the backing of the 16 parliamentarians of the Tamil National Alliance because of his treatment of the ethnic minority at the close of the country’s 26-year civil war in 2009, analysts said.

The remaining six legislators of the People’s Liberation Front are expected to abstain from any vote because of anger at both leaders.

But the consensus seems to be that the longer Rajapaksa stays in power, the more likely he is to gain an upper hand and tempt defections from the UNP itself.

Already, at least five legislators from the UNP have switched sides, taking up positions in the cabinet headed by Rajapaksa, who is insists his appointment was legitimate.

“I am sure we will see more legislators cross-over in the coming days,” said Rajitha Keethi Tennakoon, a Colombo-based political analyst.

“It looks like he [Rajapaksa] will win this [stay on as prime minister], regardless of whether this [his appointment] was constitutional or not,” he added.

Tennakoon said that he does not expect a confidence vote to happen when parliament reconvenes.

“The first session will be taken up with the president’s inaugural address. And now that Rajapaksa will sit in the prime minister’s seat when parliament opens, he will go ahead with presenting his budget for next year.”

So why did Rajapaksa announce parliament will resume on Monday?

That was just a “deliberate attempt at misleading” opponents and spreading “misinformation”, Tennakoon argued.  

Wickremesinghe’s UNP was not available for comment immediately.

WATCH: Thousands rally in Colombo in support of sacked Sri Lanka PM (01:48)

Change political facts

Asanga Welikala, a Sri Lankan law professor at the University of Edinburgh, also said Sirisena, whose political future is now tied to Rajapaksa, would only recall parliament when he had the numbers.

“The whole enterprise is clearly illegal, but Rajapaksa is out to change the political facts,” Welikala said. 

The former president, whose Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP) trounced its opponents in local council elections in February, was now gearing towards “dissolving parliament and holding a general election”, Welikala said.

Observers say Rajapaksa’s party has a high chance of winning early elections because of public anger over high inflation and the failure of Wickremesinghe’s government to deliver on promises of cracking down on corruption and accountability for war atrocities.

The Sri Lankan rupee lost 12 percent of its value against the US dollar this year, while growth slowed to 3.3 percent in 2017 – its lowest level in 16 years.

Both Welikala and Tennakoon said that although the constitution states that parliament cannot be dissolved before four-and-a-half years have passed since its election, Sirisena and Rajapaksa might use a constitutional provision that allows the president to dissolve it if the government’s budget fails in a vote.

And that explains why the UPFA is working on the state budget, the analysts said.

A vote on the budget would put the UNP in a tough spot. If its legislators reject it, the parliament could be dissolved, and if they approve it, it would only legitimise Rajapaksa’s government.

Welikala, the law professor, said Wickremesinghe will face a “leadership crisis in the UNP” if he fails to galvanise his party or mobilise popular support against Rajapaksa.

But if the sacked prime minister is successful in organising mass protests, the country will then face the prospect of political violence, Welikala added, because Rajapaksa will match each demonstration with his own rival rally.

“This is unprecedented. We’ve had many issues with our democracy, but one thing we’ve never had is an illegal transfer of power,” Welikala said.

“If the government can clearly violate the constitution and get away with it, it sets a very dangerous precedent.”  

Paikiasothy Saravanamuttu, executive director of Colombo-based Centre for Policy Alternatives, said he feared Rajapaksa would once again lift the two-term limit on the presidency and try to return to that post.

With elections all but certain, Saravanamuttu said the only way to protect Sri Lanka’s democracy was to defeat Rajapaksa in a vote.

That would depend on how the country’s Sinhalese Buddhist majority, who regard Rajapaksa as a hero for ending the country’s bloody civil war, viewed the current constitutional crisis.

“The argument for strong government seems to have prevailed over democracy at the moment. So the issue is as to whether the people are going to vote for a strong government or against the total violation of the constitution,” he said.

But even though he went on to describe the future as bleak, Saravanamuttu said Sri Lankans are faced with a political drama that will undoubtedly twist and turn to the end.

“We’ll just have to wait and see,” he said.

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