Sri Lanka Facing Test Of Democracy

For the next few days, all eyes would remain fixed on the outcome of the vote when Sri Lankan Parliament meets on November 14—to decide which of the two contenders shall be the future Prime Minister of the island-nation. Hopefully, that should end the state of constitutional uncertainty that has persisted since October 26—when President Maithripala Sirisena appointed former President Mahinda Rajapakse as the new Prime Minister after summarily sacking the incumbent, Mr. Ranil Wickremasinghe.

On the face of it, it looks like a neck and neck race. The odds almost seem to be evenly divided between the two Prime Ministerial contenders. By current reckoning, Mr Wickremasinghe has the support of 102 members in the 225-member Parliament, while Mr. Rajapakse’s supporters add up to 101 members. That represents a delicate balance, and it could change if even a few members decide to shift sides. Four of the five members, who had earlier defected to Mr. Rajapakse’s side, had already been rewarded with ministerial positions. There have been reports that cash inducements too were in circulation. Mr. Rajapakse also is banking on the hope that the incumbency factor may persuade some disgruntled members of the ruling alliance to shift over to his side. However, Mr. Wickramasinghe has declared that his flock is firmly behind him, and there would be no more defections to the other side.

Of the remaining 22 members, the six-member Janata Vimukti Peramuna, or JVP, the Sinhala nationalist party, has already announced that it will not take any sides, as it finds that there is not much to choose between the two candidates. That leaves the Tamil National Alliance (TNA), which has sixteen members in Parliament, as the real king-maker, as it were, in the field.

But here too, things are not quite as simple. The Tamil National Alliance, which has been part of the Sirisena-Wickremasinghe coalition since the 2015 election, itself, is no longer a monolithic entity. The alliance recently went through a schism when Mr. C. V. Wigneswaran, Chief Minister of the Northern Province, split to form his own party. It remains to be seen whether the two factions of the Tamil alliance would be on the same page when it comes to the vote of confidence on November 14.

Moreover, underlying the current contestation is the subtext reflecting on the relative powers of the President and the Speaker when dealing with Parliament. Mr. Karu Jayasuriya, the Speaker of Sri Lankan Parliament, has refused to recognize Mr. Rajapakse as the Prime Minister even though Mr. Rajapakse had been sworn in by the President. It remains to be seen how the Speaker shall treat Prime Minister Rajapakse when the House meets next Wednesday.  One of the reasons the developments in Sri Lanka are being keenly watched by the international community is that Mr. Rajapakse is seen as close to China. It was under his presidency that the Chinese footprint increased vastly in the island nation. It is another matter though, that Sri Lanka today finds itself neck deep in debt as a result of the Chinese investments. The Sri Lankan government was forced to lease out the Hambantota port to China in lieu of debt repayment commitments that it could not meet. So, it was not surprising that President Xi Jinping rushed in to welcome Mr. Rajapakse soon after he was sworn as the Prime Minister.

To many observers of the unfolding scenario, it seems a pity that Sri Lanka is finding itself in the middle of this self-generated situation. More so, the island-nation has had the longest history of working in a democratic set-up in the south Asian region. As the recent experience in neighbouring Maldives has demonstrated, the affirmation of the will of the people through representative institutions should provide the way out of constitutional quagmire. The November 14 vote in Sri Lankan Parliament gives reason to that hope. India is keeping a watch on the unfolding events. Being the closest neighbour, any change in the island nation is bound to have repercussions in the relations between the two neighbours.

Script:  M. K. Tikku, Political Commentator