Until Tuesday, political developments in Sri Lanka had been moving according to a script that would have met Mahinda Rajapaksa’s approval. But the Supreme Court’s ruling late in the afternoon, restoring the dissolved parliament and putting an end to plans for fresh parliamentary polls slated for January 5, seems to have spoilt the plot.
The apex court’s ruling means that parliament is likely to be restored soon. But it is not clear which of the two PMs—Ranil Wickremesinghe or his replacement, Rajapaksa, will be called to face the trust of the House.
President Maithripala Sirisena had on October 26 dismissed Wickremesinghe and appointed Rajapaksa in his place, plunging the nation into a political crisis. But though the latter formed a cabinet, his MPs could not get enough support from others to form a government and face a floor test. At this, Sirisena dissolved parliament last week, ringing the bell for fresh polls. Since Wickremesinghe is now claiming that the court order also questions his dismissal, it was for the speaker of parliament, Karu Jayasuriya, to decide which of the two leaders will be asked to prove his majority.
The ruling treads on uncharted territory, as it questions the president’s power to dismiss the PM and appoint a new one. The grey area in law and different interpretations could again set in motion another chaotic and violent phase in Sri Lanka’s political theatre.
A three-judge bench headed by chief justice of the apex court, Nalin Perera, heard the series of petitions filed before him against the dissolution of parliament and ruled for its immediate restoration. Interestingly, Sirisena, as president, appointed Perera last month.
Significantly, as various alignments continue to unravel among major political forces led by Sirisena, Rajapaksa and Wickremesinghe, India is keeping a ‘weather eye’ on developments and has decided on a ‘hands-off policy’ to avoid political controversy. China, which has major infrastructure investments in Sri Lanka, seems to have curbed its earlier enthusiasm by also trying to follow India’s example. Reportedly, “an open letter” criticising China’s involvement in Lankan politics that had been doing the rounds in Colombo’s diplomatic circle could have played a role in the shift in Beijing’s stand.
President Sirisena’s decision to dissolve parliament and hold fresh elections was met with angry civil society members and politicians, who challenged it through 11 ‘fundamental rights’ petitions in the Supreme Court on October 13, seeking its intervention against the “unconstitutional” move. One of the petitioners was Ratnajeevan Hoole, a senior officer of the three-member Election Commission of Sri Lanka.
Along with dismissing sitting PM Wickremesinghe, and appointing Rajapaksa, Sirisena had also prorogued parliament in a move that was widely seen as an attempt to encourage large scale defection in Rajapaksa’s favour to allow him to win the trust vote on the floor of the House when it was to reconvene after a fortnight.
But despite a few defections, rising protests forced the president to dissolve the House and call for fresh elections. It was a setback for the Sirisena-Rajapaksa duo.
Rajapaksa was defeated in the 2015 presidential election by a Wickremesinghe-led United National Party and a Sirisena-driven Sri Lankan Freedom Party (SLFP), when they formed the United People’s Freedom Alliance. Though a leading member of SLFP, Rajapaksa was marginalised within his own outfit by Sirisena. To maintain his relevance, Rajapaksa decided to encourage his supporters to float a new outfit, Sri Lanka Podujana Perumana (SLPP).
At the local council elections held this February, Rajapaksa’s supporters won 126 seats under the SLPP banner, as against UNP’s five and Sirisena’s United People’s Freedom Alliance’s two seats. Though a large number of the councils didn’t favour any one party, the results encouraged Rajapaksa. Subsequently, he made public statements demanding early polls. Before the current upheaval, elections were due in Sri Lanka in 2020.
A few days back, Rajapaksa finally decided to join the SLPP to lead his supporters in the polls. It seems he may have to wait a little longer for that election.