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November 16, 2018

Tussle for power


November 16, 2018

The ongoing political and constitutional crisis in Sri Lanka took yet another turn as the country’s parliament passed a no-confidence motion against Sri Lankan Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa. For his part, Rajapaksa has refused to accept the motion.

This is one of the most chaotic crises that Sri Lanka has ever witnessed. Sri Lankan President Maithripala Sirisena dissolved parliament on October 26 and announced his decision to hold general elections on January 5, 2019.The Supreme Court suspended the presidential order and allowed parliament to resume business.

Sri Lanka’s political turmoil began when President Sirisena and former president and strongman Mahinda Rajapaksa organised a democratic coup against right-wing prime minister, Ranil Wickremesinghe. The president dismissed him and appointed Rajapaksa as prime minister.

Wickremesinghe declared the presidential order to be illegal and unconstitutional, and decided to continue working as prime minister. Meanwhile, Rajapaksa also took oath as PM and appointed his cabinet. He eventually failed to muster the support of 113 MPs to get a vote of confidence to prove his majority. At this stage, both Wickremesinghe and Rajapaksa have claimed that they are the country’s legitimate PM.

The power struggle between Sirisena and Wickremesinghe has persisted for almost a year. Eighteen months ago, they had put together a coalition government to keep Rajapaksa out of the government. But differences developed between Sirisena and Wickremesinghe on a range of issues.

As a result, Rajapaksa formed an alliance with the president and tabled a vote of no-confidence against Wickremesinghe. The latter won the support of enough MPs to defeat the motion in March 2018. Since then, the rift between the two leaders has deepened.

This is purely a constitutional coup because the serving PM has not legally ceased to remain in office before a new premier has been appointed. This form of parliamentary coup is fairly new to Sri Lankan politics, even though crises of a similar nature have been witnessed across South Asia.

It has become clear that Wickremesinghe has gained a majority in parliament because the Tamil National Alliance (TNA) is supporting him. If parliament and the Supreme Court failed to solve this political and constitutional crisis, this battle will be fought on the streets.

This scenario can create a situation that is akin to the civil war in Sri Lanka. Already one person was killed and few others were injured when Rajapaksa’s supporters forcibly took over the control of many government buildings.

Mahinda Rajapaksa is fighting the last political battle of his political career, and won’t give up without a fight. So, it would be wrong to underestimate him. He will do everything possible to consolidate his power.

But it was unclear whether he had legally resumed his role as prime minister, fuelling confusion over who commands state institutions, such as the police and public service.

Sri Lanka is considered as the oldest democracy in Asia. But at the moment, it is facing an unprecedented period of turmoil. Constitutional experts have raised questions over the sacking of PM. Although Wickremesinghe has urged parliament be allowed to decide on his leadership, he was prevented from doing so when Sirisena abruptly suspended the body.

Parliament was convened earlier this week after an interim order by the country’s Supreme Court and a floor test was conducted to determine whether the Rajapaksa has a majority in the 225-member parliament.

Rajapaksa is a controversial figure in Sri Lankan politics. For many, he is a real hero who won the decades-long civil war against Tamil Tigers in 2009. But for others, he is a bloodthirsty tyrant, dictator and human rights violator. His possible return has raised many concerns among journalists, Tamil politicians, social activists, and human rights lawyers.

Sirisena says that he managed to replace the PM because his life depended on it – literally. In a speech given in October, days after his political manoeuvre, Sirisena said that one of Wickremesinghe’s cabinet ministers had been plotting to kill him. So, Sirisena argued that he had no choice but to kick Wickremesinghe out and replace him with Rajapaksa.

There is a love-hate relationship between Sirisena and Rajapaksa. Sirisena was a minister in the cabinet of thee then president Rajapaksa and he was also the secretary-general of ruling SLFP. But Sirisena ditched Rajapaksa just before the elections, became a joint candidate of the opposition parties and defeated Rajapaksa in the 2015 elections.

Geopolitics also factored into their political rivalry. Rajapaksa sought closer economic and political relations with China when he was president. Meanwhile, Wickremesinghe is considered to be closer to India, the US and various European powers. His ouster will be a setback for Western powers and India. China and India are engaged in an intense struggle in the region to establish their hegemony.

The US Embassy in Colombo has denounced Sirisena’s decision to dissolve parliament over the weekend. “There is much at stake and such actions jeopardise Sri Lanka’s economic progress and international reputation,” the embassy revealed in a statement. “We call on the president to respect his country’s democratic tradition and… rule of law.”

Meanwhile, China seems satisfied with finding an old ally back in power. Beijing was quick to congratulate Rajapaksa. The final outcome of the political turmoil will affect the balance of power within the country and across South Asia.

The writer is a freelance journalist.

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