Sri Lanka: A presidential attempt to subvert parliamentary democracy

My photo of the entrance to the Sri Lankan President’s House in Colombo last week

I’m just back from a glorious holiday in Sri Lanka. Going around this beautiful island, one could have been forgiven for not realising that there was a national constitutional crisis going on. Every where was peaceful and there was no sign of even the odd protest placard, even in the capital of Colombo. The Sri Lankan people are extremely friendly and peaceful. I did notice some particularly passionate TV debates, as I flicked around the channels to find the cricket, and the papers were full of the latest machinations in Parliament.

I hesitate to summarise the details of the Sri Lankan constitutional crisis. Wikipedia provides an excellent narrative.

In the words of the BBC:

President Maithripala Sirisena sacked Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe and his cabinet and suspended parliament.

Mr Sirisena has appointed the man he defeated in the 2015 presidential election – former President Mahinda Rajapaksa – as the new PM.

But Mr Wickremesinghe is refusing to leave, saying the move is illegitimate.

Parliament has recovened, following the intervention of the Supreme Court, and passed not one but two motions of no confidence in Mahinda Rajapaksa, the man appointed Prime Minister by the President. The President refuses to accept these motions because they were voice votes. However, the motions were in compliance with the parliamentary standing orders. Parliamentary Speaker Karu Jayasuriya is standing up to the President and has withstood attempts to physically harrass him (Jayasuriya). It seems very odd that the President, who insists he is following the letter of the constitution himself, should ask Parliament to actually exceed the requirements of its standing orders by asking them to hold a written vote, rather than a voice vote.

It seems the President is biding his time, waiting for a Supreme Court decision on the whole situation on December 7th.

The whole thing seems very peculiar. One can’t help thinking that the President has over-stepped his authority. I read a long interview with him in the Sri Lankan Sunday Times. He listed a series of grievances he has with Ranil Wickremesinghe, none of which seem strong enough to dismiss the latter. It is surely not enough to use a list of gripes to justify replacing the Prime Minister, who had majority parliamentary support, with someone who does not have majority parliamentary support.

One must hope that this crisis is resolved promptly and without violence.

Gami Weerakoon, also in the Sunday Times, had an excellent opinion column on the issue, entitled “Fake news, fake logic and poor arithmetic”:

The collective wisdom on constitutional law expressed by the pundits for about a month – from learned professors like GL to three-wheeler drivers – cannot surpass the fundamental reality of parliamentary democracy: He who holds the parliamentary majority rules the land. This is an elementary civics lesson we were taught over half a century ago at school. Even if the final legal decision upholds President Mauthripala Sirisena’s wisdom of sacking Prime Minister Ranil Wikremesignhe and proroguing parliament, whatever new government that emerges cannot function without a working majority.

The same column had a very witty opinion on the man chosen by the President to be Prime Minister:

Mahinda Rajapaksa has been made the prime minister on a unilateral decision of the executive president without — never mind a manifesto — even a political or economic strategy. But it is apparent that he believes in a panacea (kokatah thailaya) for all Lanka’s ills — Rajapaksa, Rajapaksa, Rajapaksa and some more Rajapaksas as before.

* Paul Walter is a Liberal Democrat activist. He is one of the Liberal Democrat Voice team. He blogs at Liberal Burblings.

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One Comment

  • Simon Banks 2nd Dec '18 - 3:58pm

    There was a rather similar constitutional crisis in Finland in the late 1970s. I may have got one or two things wrong, but roughly, it went like this. The aged President Kekkonen sacked the Prime Minister, Mauno Koivisto, whom he did not like, possibly because Koivisto was seen as a plausible successor. Koivisto’s government had just lost its majority through the withdrawal of the Left Socialists, but such mini-crises were not uncommon in Finland in those days and were often resolved by some kind of deal. Koivisto refused to go. He knew that if he lost a vote in Parliament, he would have to go, but he gambled that a majority would support the likely coming man against a rather autocratic old man who couldn’t be around much longer. Koivisto won and before long was President.

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