The dissolution of Sri Lanka’s Parliament by President Maithripala Sirisena has reached the country’s Supreme Court, with the move challenged by political parties as well as non-political groups. They have cited an Article of the Constitution to argue that the dissolution was unconstitutional.
On October 26, the President abruptly sacked Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe and appointed in his place former President Mahinda Rajapaksa. This was after Rajapaksa had led his newly formed Sri Lanka People’s Party (SLPP) to victory in local body polls. The President initially prorogued Parliament for reconvening on November 16, but on November 9 he dissolved the House as it became evident that Rajapaksa did not have enough support in the 225-member House. The President’s notification announced the dissolution effective from midnight of October 9, and called for elections on January 5.
Wickremesinghe’s UNP and other groups have challenged the President’s decision in the Supreme Court, terming it unconstitutional. After completing the first round of hearing on Monday, the court adjourned the matter until Tuesday. There are 11 petitions before the court from all major parties including the UNP, civil society groups, and an Election Commission member.
The provision in focus
The UNP’s main argument is based on Article 70 (1) of the Sri Lankan Constitution, said Harsh De Silva, who was Minister of National Policies and Economic Affairs in Wickremesinghe’s cabinet. The petitioners have pointed out that this provision restricts the powers of the President to dissolve Parliament before the end of four-and-a-half years out of the total five-year term. The five-year tenure of the dissolved Parliament had started in September 2015; the petitioners argue that fresh elections cannot happen before February 2020. Also, they argue, the President’s move did not have the support of two-thirds of the members, which is a requirement under the same Article.
Article 70(1) reads: “The President may by Proclamation, summon, prorogue and dissolve Parliament: Provided that the President shall not dissolve Parliament until the expiration of a period of not less than four years and six months from the date appointed for its first meeting, unless Parliament requests the President to do so by a resolution passed by not less than two-thirds of the whole number of Members (including those not present), voting in its favour.”
A senior lawyer representing President Sirisena told The Indian Express that Article 33(2)(C) supersedes Article 70(1). Article 33(2)(C) reads: “It shall be the duty of the President to… In addition to the powers, duties and functions expressly conferred or imposed on, or assigned to the President by the Constitution or other written law, the President shall have the power…. to summon, prorogue and dissolve Parliament.”
Lawyers in the President’s camp also cite Chapter 1(3) of the Constitution: “In the Republic of Sri Lanka sovereignty is in the People and is inalienable. Sovereignty includes the powers of government, fundamental rights and the franchise.” The lawyers say that sovereignty being non-negotiable and unconditional, no clause such as Article 70(1) can impose a condition on sovereignty.