Sri Lanka faces a burgeoning constitutional crisis

Editorials featured in the Forum section are solely the opinions of their individual authors.

On Oct. 26, Sri Lankan President Maithripala Sirisena of the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) sacked the Prime Minister, Ranil Wikramasinghe of the United National Party (UNP), ending a three-year-old alliance often marked with internal turbulence, and setting off a Constitutional crisis in the island nation. He then installed an ally-turned-foe-turned-ally, Former President Mahindra Rajapaksa of the Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP), as Prime Minister. Two weeks later, on Nov. 9, President Sirisena dissolved the Sri Lankan Parliament and called a snap general election to be held on Jan. 5. He also suspended the House until Nov. 16, based on reports released at the time of the writing of this article.

This latest political tussle between Rajapaksa and Wikramasinghe has experts and lawyers divided on the constitutional legality of Sirisena’s action. Under Article 33 (2)(c) in the 19th Amendment of the Sri Lankan Constitution, “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 never have the power to summon, prorogue and dissolve Parliament.” The president’s ardent supporters cite this article to defend his actions. However, there are also serious problems, as Article 70(1) of the 19th Amendment also states that the president cannot dissolve the Parliament before four and a half years into its five-year term unless requested by two-thirds of its members.

Article 33(2) is also a general provision describing the powers and functions of the president, including the power of the president to dissolve the parliament. But Article 70(1) is a specific provision that limits this power of the president in regards to the dissolution of the parliament. And based on the standard rule of interpretation, a general provision must always be read subject to a specific provision.

As the Wikramasinghe-Sirisena coalition had lasted a little more than three years, this renders the Sirisena’s move to dissolve the Parliament unconstitutional, according to several legal experts.

In 2015, when Sirisena and Wikramasinghe’s parties, which are rivals and ideological polar opposites, teamed up for the elections to defeat incumbent Rajapaksa, it caused ripples of surprise all around. However, now that Wikramasinghe’s political star and public popularity has waned thanks to slowed economic growth and several internal tussles between the former-rivals-turned-allies, Sirisena covertly formed an alliance with Rajapaksa. One of the main reasons, according to reports, is Wikramasinghe’s strongly worded statement that he issued in New Delhi after meeting the Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi on Oct. 20 about the delay in Indian projects in Sri Lanka, that seemed to be blaming the president. Wikramasinghe’s visit to India also came in the backdrop of reports in which Sirisena accused the Indian government’s Intelligence Agency, Research and Analysis Wing (RAW), of plotting his assassination, which Wikramasinghe repeatedly denied ahead of his visity in order to maintain Indian confidence in his government. Another reason, analysts speculate, could be the rejection of two of Sirisena’s nominees for the Supreme court and an Appeals Court.

Whatever the reasons may be, the Rajapaksa-Sirisena alliance is back, sparking fear of violence in Sri Lanka. Rajapaksa is known for quelling the insurgency and ending the civil war with the ethnic Tamilian separatist group, Liberation of Tamil Tigers Eelam (LTTE). But the massive human rights violations, including the murder of LTTE chief Prabhakaran’s 12-year-old son, who was handed a pack of biscuits before being executed, have cast the international spotlight on the various methods of suppression used by Rajapaksa and the Sri Lankan army in Tamil-dominated regions like Jaffna, even after the war ended. Rajapaksa is also very pro-Chinam and his tenure saw massive amounts of Chinese investments, including the construction of a port in Sri Lanka. In fact, when he lost the elections in 2015, Rajapaksa accused India of orchestrating his defeat.

Reports indicate that prior to his firing, Wikramasinghe had argued with Sirisena about a proposal to grant the development of a Colombo port project to an India-Japan joint venture. Wikramasinghe had allegedly argued that the decision should respect the memorandum of understanding signed by Sri Lanka, India, and Japan. However, reports suggest that Sirisena wanted to reject the proposal.

These reports seem to suggest that the tussle for power between India and China for investments in Sri Lanka may have led to this latest political crisis in Sri Lanka. While India remains concerned that China intends to turn Sri Lanka into a military outpost, which could greatly harm India’s security and territorial integrity due to its proximity to Sri Lanka, China continues to grow its portfolio of investments in Sri Lanka, welcoming it into its ambitious One Belt One Road (OBOR) program in 2017 and subsequently increasing investment.

Wikramasinghe’s United National Party is going to the Supreme Court to challenge what it calls the illegal dissolution of the Parliament by Sirisena. Meanwhile, countries around the world are observing the situation cautiously. The Japan International Cooperation Agency put a $1.4 billion soft debt to a light railway project in Colombo on hold, while the U.S. Department of State released a statement calling on President Sirisena to reconvene the Parliament to let democratically elected representatives decide who will lead the government.