The past few weeks have thrown the Indian Ocean nation into political chaos as rival parties jockey for power. The constitutional crisis has put a spotlight on multiple political issues that have been simmering for a while.
There is a political crisis gripping the island nation of Sri Lanka. On October 26, President Maithripala Sirisena sacked Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe and replaced him with Mahinda Rajapaksa, who served as president until he was voted out three years ago.
Wickremesinghe refused to give up his seat, insisting a no confidence vote be held so that he could prove he commands a majority. In response, Sirisena suspended parliament, dismissed his cabinet, suspended the legislature and declared snap elections for early January.
The dissolution of parliament was eventually overturned by a supreme court decision on Thursday, grinding election preparations to a halt and giving the ousted prime minister a major boost.
Sri Lanka's parliament finally reconvened on Thursday and passed a no confidence vote against the government headed by the hastily sworn-in Rajapaksa as well as motions declaring President Sirisena’s November 9 proclamations illegal.
But now a power vacuum hangs over the Indian Ocean island, with a vacant prime minister post and no government. Compounding that were scenes of chaos on the parliament floor on Thursday, as MPs threw punches and objects at the speaker.
These dramatic developments have highlighted issues that are stalling progress in the teardrop nation.
Progress has stalled
Sirisena and Wickremesinghe promised extensive changes when they came to power four years ago. Their ambitious 100-day programme provided a roadmap to change the parliamentary system and establish an independent commission. They also pledged to tackle Rajapaksa-era corruption, draft a new constitution in parliament and mend ethno-religious divisions still sore after the civil war.
While they got off to a promising start, progress slowed due to political bickering and petty distractions. Sirisena’s coalition has faced accusations that it did little to fulfil his main 2015 election pledge to eliminate rampant corruption. The corruption probes against two of Rajapaksa’s brothers, who together controlled 70 percent of the budget, went nowhere.
“There is a perception that these cases were used as political bargaining chips rather than for advancing genuine accountability. So when the stakes change, the cases also might lose momentum,” Gehan Gunatilleke, lawyer and research director at Verité Research, told TRT World.
And little was done to abolish the executive presidency.
“More than anyone else, (Sirisena) was elected to do that job. He was elected to do nothing else but that job,” Asanga Welikala, Law Professor at the University of Edinburgh told TRT World.
Trust in the government is low. Controversy regarding Sirisena’s views on women has pushed voters away from him while minorities that helped put Sirisena and Wickremesinghe into power, now feel alienated and unprotected. The newly established Office of Missing Persons was set up to provide closure to families who lost relatives during the 26-year-long ethnic conflict, but expectations of success are low.
Defections have become common
Party alliances in Sri Lanka have over time become flexible and fragile. The decision about what party an MP wants to pay allegiance to has increasingly become based on whether they can be bought or bartered, rather than based on freedom of conscience.
“It certainly became far more common after the late 1990s and originally started as a genuine exercise of freedom of conscience of members of parliament. It very rapidly deteriorated into a very corrupt practice,” Welikala told TRT World.
Party crossovers, or horse trading, have proven to be popular during the current political crisis. On Sunday, Rajapaksa and 44 other lawmakers of the Sirisena-led, centre-left Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) joined Sri Lanka Podujana Peremuna (SLPP), a political party formed in 2016 by Rajapaksa’s younger brother Basil, a former economy minister.
With the suspension of parliament on October 26, reports alleged that Sirisena and Rajapaksa were only buying time to persuade enough MPs to cross over. This was an effort to shore up enough parliamentary support to win a no confidence vote. They managed to persuade some legislators but several defected back to the UNP. When that failed, Sirisena dissolved parliament.
Sirisena is by no means a stranger to this. In 2014, he defected from the Rajapaksa-led SLFP, to join an opposition coalition that went on to oust Rajapaksa himself in 2015. He later rejoined the SLFP, took over its leadership and formed a national government with Wickremesinghe’s party.
The executive presidential system is a ‘terrible idea’
Sri Lanka’s system of government operates under a semi-presidential/parliamentary democracy, a system that was enacted in the 1978 constitution by former president JR Jayawardene.
“We are today witnessing the gross abuse of executive power in ways that have been quite unimaginable even to the best of our cynics,” wrote Raadhika Coomaraswamy, former undersecretary general of the United Nations, in the Sri Lankan publication Groundviews.
“It is power being wielded not only against the traditions and customs of a parliamentary tradition but in brazen disregard of the words and terms of the Constitution.”
This system is a divisive issue with the public - but has been used as the proverbial carrot, offered as a campaign pledge in an effort to shore up votes.
“Every person who has been elected to this office since 1984 - everyone has promised to abolish this office,” said Welikala.
Yet once elected, the allure of power has proven hard to relinquish.
Reforms introduced in 2015, in the form of the 19th constitutional amendment, weakened the powers of an executive presidency, devolving some of them to the prime minister’s office while also limiting a president’s term to two.
But some say that is not enough.
"This presidential system in whatever form and shape is a terrible idea in Sri Lanka," said Welikala.
“Even after the very big reforms that were done under the 19th amendment in 2015, we see that this is a problem. We have a culture of politics that encourages these strongman rulers and people who behave in very illegal and unconstitutional ways and having an executive president who has an electoral mandate to behave in that way is a very, very bad idea in the context of Sri Lanka's political culture,” he added.
Others argue that powers can still be left unchecked if there is no cooperation between both the prime minister and president.
“The 19th amendment is framed in a way that really requires the prime minister and the president to get along,” Gunatilleke told TRT World.
“The moment that relationship deteriorates, the 19th amendment can be its own worst enemy.”
But recent events are still a win for democracy
The crisis may be far from over and the political vacuum hardly filled but some Sri Lankans hail the supreme court decision and the no confidence vote as historic - it is evidence that the island nation has a system of checks and balances.
Jehan Perera, executive director of the National Peace Council of Sri Lanka, said the order "proves that Sri Lanka's judiciary is independent and that they were prepared to give a judgment that went against the executive".
He added: "That's a positive indication of the continuing strength of Sri Lanka's institutions and their independence which is important to the sustenance of our democracy.”
“(The decision is) a very strong indication that the supreme court was coming down on the side of constitutional due process and the rule of law,” Welikala told TRT World.
The recent pushback is a sign that institutions are regaining their independence, moving away from a system where executive power is unchecked.
“Whether talking about the judiciary or the human rights commission, the Office on Missing Persons, the media in general - if you can call it an institution - elements of the bureaucracy, the bribery commission. All these institutions have been given some space to work,” Gunatilleke said.
“Not a lot of space,” he added.
“Some space. Comparatively speaking, space that will be sufficient to get a little bit of work done. These institutions have found some independence from politicians and politics. That, I think is the big silver lining in the last three-and-a-half years."