Sri Lanka Constitutional Crisis: An Insight – Issues in News

Sri Lanka Constitutional Crisis is a much-debated topic today. In this issue of IIN, we discuss this issue from multiple perspectives. This topic is regularly seen in the news and hence, is important for the UPSC exam. Read our Issues in News segment for insights into topics that make headlines and are important for the IAS exam.

Why in the news?

    • Recently, Sri Lanka’s President Maithripala Sirisena sacked Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe and appointed Mahinda Rajapaksa, his erstwhile political rival, as the new Prime Minister.
    • Experts believe that this is a surprising move which Mr. Sirisena made in order to resolve a deepening political dispute between himself and Mr. Wickremesinghe.

 

  • However, this act has only pushed Sri Lanka into an unprecedented constitutional crisis, beginning a potentially dangerous phase of an on-going three-cornered power struggle among three leaders.

 

  • At the centre of the crisis is the lack of clarity as the new Prime Minister seems to have been appointed without a constitutionally valid vacancy for the position.
  • Experts believe that the crisis is an outcome of the uneasy coalition between Sirisena and Wickremesinghe which was formed with the main objective of defeating Rajapaksa in the previous elections.

At the heart of the constitutional dispute:

  • A provision in the 1978 Sri Lankan Constitution provided for the dismissal of the Prime Minister by the President after one year of Parliamentary elections.
  • However, this was removed through a constitutional amendment in 2015. The recent development has created a constitutional logjam with both sides claiming the validity of one over the other and it is likely to be hammered out through unconstitutional means which would be a big blow to democratic norms.
  • There is a much bigger structural problem that underlies the ongoing crisis.
  • Sri Lanka has had four different constitutions since Independence and Ranil Wickremesinghe was pushing for a fifth constitution.
  • This multiplicity of constitutions and the long ethnic war has not allowed Sri Lanka to settle basic constitutional questions such as:
  1. Executive Presidency vs Westminster Model,
  2. Division of powers between the President and the Prime Minister,
  3. Unitary vs Federal System etc.
    • The constitution of 1978 gave Sri Lanka a powerful President who shared powers with the Prime Minister and this was largely modelled on the French constitution.
    • This arrangement continued until the end of Rajapaksa’s regime in 2015, so much so that Rajapaksa’s government was accused of being an authoritarian government with complete disregard to human rights of Tamil minorities and fundamental rights of its citizens.
    • This was partially corrected by the coalition government of Sirisena and Wickremesinghe which was elected in 2015.
    • However, the structural problems continue to persist and can be rectified either by a court of law or through popular struggle. What compounds matters is the India vs China faceoff, wherein both powers are eager to establish their strategic supremacy.

 

  • It is also important to note that the constitutional provision which Mr. Sirisena has cited in the official letter to Mr. Wickremesinghe does not grant the President authority to remove a Prime Minister from office.

 

A Closer Look:

 

  • It is important to note that Section 42(4) of the Sri Lankan Constitution merely enables the President to appoint a PM.

 

    • The President has taken the position that since he is the appointing authority, he also has the implicit power to sack the PM.

 

  • Further, it is important to note that the PM is not a public servant who can be sacked by the appointing authority at his will. It is a constitutional office with protection from the executive. This is the crux of the constitutional dispute.

 

  • Experts point out that the entire operation of altering the composition of the government seems to have been executed in a great hurry and in secrecy.
  • Some experts have also labelled this a ‘constitutional coup’. What lends credence to this is the fact that there is a lack of clarity as to whether Mr. Sirisena’s letter (removing Mr. Wickremesinghe) had actually reached him by the time Mr. Rajapaksa was sworn in.

Position Adopted by Mr. Wickremesinghe:

    • The position adopted by Mr. Wickremesinghe compounds the seriousness of this issue.  By dismissing the constitutional validity of the presidential action, Mr. Wickremesinghe has argued that he still commands a majority in Parliament.
    • Mr. Wickremesinghe’s line of argument is that only the Parliament has the constitutionally sanctioned authority to decide whether he could continue in office as PM or not.

 

  • Further, it also suggests that as long as there is no no-confidence motion passed in Parliament against him and the cabinet, his position as PM cannot be invalidated by the President at his will.

 

  • Mr. Wickremesinghe has also cited the fact of having defeated a no-trust motion brought against him a few months ago; and that the situation, of Parliament’s majority expressing faith in him, remains unaltered.

19th Amendment to Sri Lanka’s Constitution:

  • It is important to note that the 19th Amendment to Sri Lanka’s Constitution, was passed in 2015 under the joint political leadership of both Mr. Sirisena and Mr. Wickremesinghe.
  • The 19th Amendment restricted the powers of the President under the 1978 Constitution (the original) as well as the 18th Amendment passed in 2010.
  • Among the presidential powers taken away by the 19th Amendment, which is valid, is the one pertaining to the President’s powers over the PM.
  • The 19th Amendment created a dual executive.
  • The 19th Amendment also made the PM’s position secure from the arbitrary actions of the President. Thus, the office of the PM falls vacant only under limited circumstances.

These limited circumstances include:

  1. Death,
  2. voluntary resignation,
  3. loss of support in Parliament,
  4. rejection by Parliament of the budget, and
  5. ceasing to be an MP are these circumstances.

It is important to note that the sacking by the President is certainly not in this list.

 

  • By this change, the 19th Amendment has also restored the Westminster framework of relationship between the head of state, the PM, and Parliament.

 

    • All these make the constitutionality as well as democratic legitimacy of the actions of Mr. Sirisena less than clear.
    • An argument put forward on behalf of the President is that when the United People’s Freedom Alliance, which was a partner in the so-called unity government, informed the Speaker that it was leaving the ruling coalition, the cabinet automatically stood dissolved, thereby creating a vacancy for the office of the PM.

 

  • However, this is not an argument derived from any explicit provision of the Constitution. It is merely a political argument. What it does is no more than confirm that the composition of the coalition government was altered. It does not automatically lead to the loss of constitutional validity of the cabinet and the position of the person holding the office of the PM.

 

Areas which need clarity:

    • In Mr. Sirisena’s address to the nation, he did not clarify the constitutional issue at hand.
    • He cited political and personal reasons as to why he could not partner with Mr. Wickremesinghe as the PM.
    • However, his assertion that he acted fully in accordance with the Constitution is only a claim. It awaits clarification.

 

  • What is in dispute is not the total breakdown of relationship between the two leaders, leading to a collapse of their coalition. What is in doubt is the constitutionality of a series of actions by Mr. Sirisena.
  • Further, if the series of actions by Mr. Sirisena are valid at all, they set a bad precedence for future constitutional governance in Sri Lanka. It is believed that contrary to the letter and spirit of the 19th Amendment, no PM will be secure in his/her position against arbitrary dismissal by the President. These circumstances also warrant judicial intervention to resolve the constitutional doubt.

 

A Look at the Current Situation:

    • Recently, President Maithripala Sirisena dissolved the Sri Lankan Parliament and called a snap general election for January 5, 2019.
    • The announcement came within hours of his party spokesman publicly admitting to lacking a majority in Parliament. Mr. Sirisena’s front was aiming for a majority to push its controversially installed Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa through the legislature.
    • However, as a consequence, the Supreme Court on 13th November, 2018 suspended the dissolution of Parliament until December 7, 2018.
    • Mr. Sirisena had earlier suspended Parliament until November 16, 2018 possibly to muster strength for his front, but summoned the House for November 14, 2018 amid growing pressure and rising demands by legislators of the state to end the political crisis in the island nation as soon as possible.

 

  • However, on November 14, the Sri Lankan Parliament passed a no-confidence motion against the government of Rajapaksa.

 

  • Following which the Parliament on November 15 witnessed a huge ruckus as members got into fistfights, hurled objects at each and even tried to attack Speaker Karu Jayasuriya.
  • Experts point out that both decisions of Mr. Sirisena, i.e.
    a) sacking Mr. Wickremesinghe and
  1. b) dissolving Parliament, have raised serious questions about constitutional validity.

 

 

  • As for the dismissal of Mr. Wickremesinghe, the 19th Amendment removed the President’s authority to arbitrarily sack his Prime Minister.

 

It is important to note that under the Constitution, the Prime Minister’s office does not fall vacant unless in circumstances of his death, voluntary resignation or loss of majority in a crucial vote in Parliament.

  • Further, since none of these is true in the current situation, a new appointment by the President is constitutionally ruled out.


Conflicting Interpretations of the Constitution?

  • Some lawyers even point to a discrepancy between the English and Sinhala texts of the Constitution and claim the President, as per the Sinhala version, still has the power to remove a Prime Minister.
  • Other constitutional lawyers have argued that while there is a discrepancy in language and framing, the import and essence of the Sinhala text is consistent with that in English, especially when read along with the rest of the Constitution in Sinhala.
  • On the dissolution of Parliament, the President does not have the powers to dissolve Parliament within four-and-a-half years of its convening, unless requested by two-thirds of its members, as per the 19th Amendment.
  • The President’s side has invoked Article 33(2) C that lists the powers to summon, prorogue and dissolve Parliament, in addition to his existing powers.
  • Nevertheless, critics have noted that while the Article is a general enumeration of his powers, it is the 19th Amendment’s specific provision that must prevail in such a situation.

Further Analysis:

    • Experts believe that while the power struggle will continue, it is to the credit of the democratic regime change in January 2015, that was ironically led by Mr. Sirisena, that Sri Lanka’s governing institutions have resisted the authoritarian power inherent in the executive presidency.
    • Looking back, Sri Lanka’s liberal democratic turn in January 2015 was too good to be true, particularly when authoritarian populist regimes were steadily rising the world over.

 

  • It was Mr. Rajapaksa, who had further entrenched the executive presidency including by removing its two-term limit and later manoeuvred the impeachment of a Supreme Court Chief Justice.

 

  • However, his moves were dislodged by a broad array of political forces.
  • It is believed that Mr. Sirisena re-joining Mr. Rajapaksa has once again sparked the reductive analysis of power play over Sri Lanka involving China, India and the U.S. in the Indian Ocean.
  • Such lazy analysis fails to consider the political consequences of prolonged and flawed neoliberal policies and political-economic changes.
  • It is also important to note that the Sirisena-Rajapaksa camp claims that the sale of Sri Lanka’s assets to China and India and the Free Trade Agreement with Singapore over the last few years by the United National Party (UNP), led by ousted Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe, have undermined sovereignty and triggered an economic crisis.

A Look at Internal Politics:

  • It is important to note that the UNP claims to have a monopoly on western friendship and bringing in foreign investors. It paints a picture of international isolation and a Western aid strike if Mr. Rajapaksa returns, but does not reflect on how its own policies have led the country here.
  • However, this trend plays out differently within Tamil politics.
    For example, narrow Tamil nationalists in Jaffna and the Tamil diaspora see the emergence of an anti-west government as an opportunity to mobilise international opprobrium. They continue to dream of international intervention, ignoring local realities and political dynamics.
  • These fears of external intervention and trust in international support are more for ideological manoeuvring. In reality, it is national politics, power consolidation and negotiations with external actors which have determined Sri Lanka’s international relations.
  • From a historical point of view, Sri Lanka’s tensions with external powers — except for the Indian debacle in the 1980s — have rarely led to punitive measures and damaging sanctions. Nevertheless, confrontational rhetoric has helped nationalist governments mobilise popular support.

International Pressures acting on Sri Lanka:

    • Sri Lanka’s decade-long contentious engagement, on war-time abuses, at the UN Human Rights Council is a case in point.
    • While the U.S. mobilised resolutions to rein in Mr. Rajapaksa, who was tilting towards China and Iran, he politically gained from the condemnation in Geneva, projecting himself as a defender of war heroes from international bullies.

 

  • Sri Lanka’s deteriorating balance of payments and external debt problems are also pertinent. While there is much talk of the debt trap by China, in reality, only 10% of Sri Lanka’s foreign loans are from China.

 

  • It is important to note that close to 40% of external debt is from the international markets, including sovereign bonds, of which an unprecedented $4.2 billion in debt payments are due next year (2019).
  • Here the International Monetary Fund’s (IMF) vocal position in relation to its agreement with Sri Lanka from June 2016, and the rating agencies’ projections on Sri Lanka are crucial to roll over loans.
  • Ultimately, the flows of such capital have little do with diplomatic relations, but depend on national stability and strength, including the political will to ensure budget cuts and debt repayment.
  • It is important to note that during his earlier stint in power, Mr. Rajapaksa called the bluff of international economic isolation after a most horrendous war.
  • Despite western opposition, with authoritarian stability, he had few problems mobilising loans from the global markets and international agencies such as the World Bank, and for that matter an IMF Stand-By Arrangement.
  • On the economy front, it is important to note that Sri Lanka’s economy is not immune from global forces. However, changes to the global economic order, rather than the instrumental moves of any one global power, are what trouble Sri Lanka.
  • Further, declining global trade with increasing protectionism has foreclosed possibilities of export-led development. Experts believe that this reality has completely escaped Sri Lanka’s neoliberal policymakers, whether from the UNP, or earlier under Mr. Rajapaksa.

A Brief Note on Sri Lanka’s Debt Obligations:

  • In early January 2019, Sri Lanka has to repay $1 billion of Mr Rajapaksa’s debt taken in January 2014, the repayment of which is also under the purview of Parliament.
    • Sri Lanka’s ousted Finance Minister, Mangala Samaraweera has recently said that Sri Lanka is on the brink of an economic anarchy and chaos as never experienced before.

 

  • It is important to note that as per Article 148 of the Constitution, Parliament shall have full control over public finance.

 

  • The Former Finance Minister, Mangala Samaraweera has also said that in the absence of a legitimate government, a grave situation has now arisen as there is no legal way to meet public expenditure and obligations of the state from 2019.
  • He further asserts that the Constitution does not provide for any alternative arrangements for public finance, even with the intervention of the executive envisaged under the limited circumstances of article 150(3) under which the President can only allocate finances for the first three months of a new parliament.
  • He thus points out that under the current circumstances, from January 1st 2019 until a new parliament is convened, the spending power of the state ceases to exist.
  • He finally adds that a legitimate government with an adequate majority in parliament would have had the opportunity to present at least a vote on account which would have covered at least the first three months of the new year enabling payment of pensions, salaries and settlement of debts.

Concluding Remarks

    • In conclusion, experts believe that the political flux over the past few weeks was the culmination of a bitter power struggle between Mr. Sirisena and Mr. Wickremesinghe within the ruling coalition.
    • The two leaders, who were from traditionally rival parties and with incompatible ideologies, had joined hands to form the government in 2015, ousting Mr. Rajapaksa. However, in about three-and-a-half years, they fell apart. Amid the pressure of a Rajapaksa comeback, Mr. Sirisena chose to side with him.
    • It is important to note that the conduct of elections will depend on the Election Commission’s position on the development and possible legal hurdles, since Mr. Wickremesinghe’s United National Party (UNP) has vowed to move the Supreme Court on the “illegal” dissolution of Parliament.

 

  • Also, from the time the 19th Amendment capped the Presidency at two terms, Mr. Rajapaksa has been eager to return as Prime Minister.

 

  • However, Mr. Rajapaksa is now with Mr. Sirisena, who brings with him at least part of his unpopular coalition government’s incumbency. Mr. Wickremesinghe, on the other hand, is faced with a dual challenge. These challenges are as follows:

 

  • some within his party have been demanding a new leader for some time,
  • while those backing him are aware of his falling political stock amid a growing economic crisis.

 

  • Some experts also suggest that Mr. Wickremesinghe should realise that he is partly to blame for the political imbroglio.
  • Experts point out certain reasons for the ousting of Mr. Wickremesinghe. They assert the following:
  1. Wickremesinghe’s inability to establish a stable working relationship with the President to run the coalition government,
  2. His casual disregard for the popular mandate which he and Mr. Sirisena jointly won in 2015 for corruption-free governance and politics,
  3. His lackadaisical attitude to constitutional reform and reconciliation,
  4. His gross neglect of popular demands for better economic governance which have severely eroded his popular standing.
  • The biggest political irony is this. The collective failure of Mr. Sirisena and Mr. Wickremesinghe to be faithful to the 2015 mandate has now brought Mr. Rajapaksa back to power on the invitation of one party in a coalition which dislodged him from power.
  • It is believed that whatever turn the crisis may take, Sri Lanka’s fragile process of democratic recovery is in peril.
  • Experts point out that while many of Sri Lanka’s neoliberal policies, including:
  1. trade liberalisation,
  2. privatising medical education,
  3. sale of sovereign bonds and
  4. the controversial port city-cum-international financial centre in Colombo, were products of the Rajapaksa government, today however, the Rajapaksa camp claims to guard Sri Lanka from a neoliberal attack on sovereignty.

It is also important to note that the economic vision of Mr. Rajapaksa is of a populist variety.

  • Further, it is credible economic alternatives with a democratic vision that will arrest the slide towards authoritarian populism. During this time of crisis, the prevalent discourse of international interests deflects such alternatives.
  • The UNP and its allies should be challenged on their blunders with the economy and failure to find a constitutional-political solution, including the abolition of the executive presidency.
  • The debate in Sri Lanka limited to personalities, corruption and geopolitics needs to shift with the public putting forward powerful demands of democratisation and economic justice. Otherwise, the thin wall of defence provided by the Parliament and the courts could crumble, and the deepening political and economic crisis may pave the way for authoritarian consolidation.

How to approach for the Civil Services Examination

 

  • General Studies II:

 

International Relations:

 

  • India and her Neighbourhood
  • India- Sri Lanka bilateral relations

 

 

Practice Questions:

  1. The constitutional crisis in Sri Lanka impacts India’s bilateral engagement with Sri Lanka. Examine.  (250 words) (12.5 marks)
  2. The constitutional crisis in Sri Lanka can potentially have a huge impact on India- Sri Lanka relations. Critically Examine. (250 words) (12.5 marks)
  3. Constitutional crises in India’s neighbourhood has a major impact on India’s ‘Neighbourhood First’ policy. Examine (250 words) (12.5 marks)

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