President Maithripala Sirisena’s decision a fortnight ago to replace Ranil Wickremesinghe with former president, Mahinda Rajapaksa, as Sri Lanka’s Prime Minister, has trigggered a series of events that threaten to push the island nation into a constitutional logjam. When it became clear that Rajapaksa could not rustle up a majority, Sirisena, last week, announced the dissolution of parliament and called for snap polls in January, nearly a year before elections are scheduled. All of Sirisena’s decisions have been challenged by Wickremesinghe and other parties in court. Meanwhile, Rajapaksa, on Sunday, quit the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP), headed by Sirisena, to join the Sri Lanka People’s Party (SLPP), a move that is likely to reset political equations in the country.
Sirisena’s decisions are unlikely to pass the test of the courts since the constitution explicitly bars early dissolution of the House unless two-thirds of its members vote for it. However, events are moving at a pace that may make it impossible to restore status quo even if the court overrules the president’s decisions. Whatever be the judicial outcome, the ongoing chaos threatens to push Sri Lanka back to a state of political uncertainty that it cannot afford. Though it has been a decade since the war in the north ended, there has been limited progress on the resolution of issues that nearly split the country on ethnic lines. Rajapaksa, who took credit for crushing the LTTE, ran an authoritarian regime that extolled Sinhala nationalism and ignored the need to repair frayed ethnic relations. The Rajapaksa dispensation also invested heavily in Chinese capital to rebuild a country ravaged by three decades of war. The “national unity government”, forged in 2015 by the unlikely combination of Sirisena, who was Rajapaksa’s ministerial colleague during the war years, and Wickremesinghe, promised a liberal and more inclusive order.
But weighed down by mounting debt and a crumbling economy, the Sirisena-Wickremesinghe government flattered to deceive. The results of elections to local authorities in February, which saw Rajapaksa’s followers make considerable gains, gave an indication of the declining popularity of the Sirisena-Wickremesinghe dispensation. Now, Sirisena’s arbitrary decision to sideline the prime minister’s office and assume extraordinary powers threatens a return to the pre-2015 years, when all authority was vested with the president. Such concentration of powers in a single office was tailor-made for authoritarianism and cronyism. Hence, the consequences of Sirisena’s decision go beyond a mere change of regime; it may lead to a reversal of the structural changes in the polity achieved since 2015.
New Delhi has been cautious in its response to the events in Colombo. It has asked that democratic values and constitutional process be respected. This is sensible advice, given that further chaos could derail Colombo’s slow progress towards rebuilding its economy and healing the wounds of the civil war.