Sri Lanka In The Throes Of A Political Crisis

Sri Lanka is facing a sudden political crisis. President Maithripala Sirisena has removed Ranil Wickremesinghe as Prime Minister and appointed former President Mahinda Rajapaksa in his place. This was due to the withdrawal of the support of the United People’s Freedom Alliance (UPFA) from the National Unity Government (NUG) which was formed in 2015. Mr. Wickremesinghe has refused to quit from his post saying the move of the President is unconstitutional and illegal. The former Prime Minister’s party has 106 seats, short of seven seats to a simple majority in Parliament. Mr. Wickremesinghe was given an ultimatum to leave ‘Temple Trees’, the official residence, but he has chosen to stay put. Security of Mr. Wickremesinghe has also been slashed by the Sri Lankan President. Speaker of the Sri Lankan Parliament Karu Jayasurya has written to the President to protect the privileges of Mr. Ranil Wickremesinghe until the vote of confidence. President Sirisena is, however, adamant and has decided to form a new cabinet by appointing new ministers with Mahinda Rajapaksa as the Prime Minister. The President has also prorogued the country’s Parliament until November 16, 2018. Sri Lanka now has two Prime Ministers leading the country towards a constitutional crisis.

Speculating violence and clashes between the jubilant Rajapaksa loyalists and angry supporters of Ranil Wickremesinghe, police is on high alert. One person was reportedly shot dead while protesting.

Speculations on the UPFA withdrawing its support from the NUG had been going on since the last two years. The political agreements between the leading political parties of the ruling alliance had expired this year. Pressure was intensified on President Sirisena who is also the President of the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP); after the victory of the Sri Lanka Padajana Peramuna (SLPP) in the local council elections held in February 2018. Defeat of the UNP and the SLFP (both ruling coalition partners) in the local council elections were considered by the Rajapaksa loyalists and the SLPP as referendum to the loss of faith in the NUG.  Mr.  Rajapaksa had since then been urging Mr. Sirisena to withdraw his party’s (SLFP) support to the NUG and form a new government with the support of the SLPP and the Rajapaksa loyalists within the UPFA.

A no confidence motion was also held against Ranil Wickremesinghe, which was defeated on the floor of the Parliament. Interestingly, President Sirisena extended his support to Wickremesinghe during the no confidence motion. But, differences between President Sirisena and Prime Minister Wickremesinghe were quite visible from the beginning of the formation of the NUG. This kept on increasing. However following the local government elections, President Sirisena openly expressed his objections on the decisions taken by the Sri Lankan cabinet such as, the hiking of fuel prices, granting the development of the Colombo East container terminal project to India and so on. Mr. Wickremesinghe’s approach towards the alleged assassination plot on President Sirisena and former Defence Secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa has been the latest bone of contention between the two leaders. Reports suggest that Mr. Sirisena and Mr. Rajapaksa met on two different occasions this month to discuss the possibility of joining hands together to form a caretaker government. While speculations were being made, no one could predict that such a sudden political development could take place.

As the situation is changing with every hour in the island country, it is difficult to say what lies ahead. Nevertheless, it is certain that if Mahinda Rajapaksa manages to win the confidence in the floor of the Parliament, there will be a change in Sri Lankan Government’s approach to the Tamil issue as well as its foreign and economic policies.

Expressing concerns on the developments in Sri Lanka, the international community including USA, UK, Canada and UN asked all the parties to act as per the Constitution. India, in an official statement said, New Delhi as a friendly neighbour hopes that “democratic values and the constitutional processes will be respected” in Sri Lanka.

Script: Gulbin Sultana, Researcher, Idsa