This week, Sri Lanka’s President, Maithripala Sirisena – the man who many thought would lead the country out of one if its darkest chapters – looked set to plunge it into a new one.
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Over the weekend, President Sirisena issued a decree announcing that he had ‘dissolved’ Sri Lanka’s Parliament – delivering a further sledgehammer blow to the Constitution that he swore to uphold in January 2015, and veering his country further down the path towards authoritarianism and violence.
Sri Lanka’s constitution is crystal clear that the President does not hold the authority to dismiss Parliament in this manner. Indeed, it as a result of the very reforms championed by Sirisena when he was elected that this is today the case.
It is difficult to view Sirisena’s actions last night as anything other than grotesquely cynical. Having failed to successfully facilitate a power grab by Mahinda Rajapaksa – whose illegal appointment to the post of Prime Minister a fortnight ago did not prompt the groundswell of support from MPs needed to stamp it with a veneer of legitimacy – Sirisena has resorted to further unlawful means to break the impasse.
Sri Lanka’s Parliament was due to meet on Wednesday 14th November, a moment at which the current Prime Minister, Ranil Wickremesinghe, looked set to demonstrate his command of a Parliamentary majority. The dissolution of Parliament is a way of denying the Prime Minister that opportunity.
The intended practical effect of Parliament’s dissolution is to prompt a general election; an election which, by all accounts, Mahinda Rajapaksa could win. Sri Lanka’s Election Commissioner has indicated that if permission is granted by the Supreme Court, a vote could be held as early as January 5th. That sets the stage for several weeks of intense political activity with no Parliamentary release valve – and with it, a heightened risk of open confrontation and violence.
The UNP, the party headed by Prime Minister Wickeremesinghe, has already signalled an intention to bring a legal challenge against the President’s dissolution of Parliament, a move which will be a critical – if far from assured – test of the judiciary’s independence and willingness to defend the Constitution against assaults by the President.
Meanwhile, the SLPP – the banner under which those loyal to Mahinda Rajapaksa look set to contest – will be seeking to maximise the perception that it is they, as advocates for early elections, who are the true champions of democracy. That is a perception that must be resisted and countered. Sri Lanka’s Constitution contains clear provisions setting out how and when elections must take place. None of them resemble the manufactured crisis that prevails in Sri Lanka today.
Given the audacity of their recent power grab, not to mention the manner in which they have sought to stamp their authority over the state apparatus (including the media, police and the military), there are serious concerns about the lengths to which Rajapaksa’s camp might go to ensure victory at any upcoming vote. And in light of the disregard that Sri Lanka’s President has shown for the constitution in recent weeks, there seems little guarantee that he will even respect an outcome that does not go his way.
To summarise the current situation, in the words of one respected Sri Lankan political commentator: “this is the gravest constitutional crisis Sri Lanka has had since independence. It also marks the beginning of total breakdown of the constitutional government, rule of law as well as law and order in the country. Even Mahinda Rajapaksa did not violate the constitution in this way. He changed the constitution when he found that the existing constitution was not adequate for his political objectives.”
This week, Maithripala Sirisena – the man who many thought would lead Sri Lanka out of one if its darkest chapters – looked set to plunge it into a new one.
The Sri Lanka Campaign for Peace and Justice is a member of the Global Coalition for Conflict Transformation, which is comprised of organizations committed to upholding and implementing the Principles of Conflict Transformation.
This article was originally published on the Sri Lanka Campaign website and is available by clicking here. The views expressed do not necessarily represent those of TransConflict.