Mahinda Rajapaksa appointed Sri Lankan PM: Present scenario is a setback to path of unity for the country

The President of Sri Lanka, Maithripala Sirisena, sacked Ranil Wickremesinghe as Prime Minister of Sri Lanka on Friday. The United People’s Freedom Alliance (UPFA) withdrew its support to the National Unity Government of Sri Lanka which has been in power since 2015.

In a surprise move, Sirisena appointed the former president Mahinda Rajapaksa as prime minister by using his powers based on the Article 42 (4) of the country's Constitution. The article mentions that “the President shall appoint as Prime Minister the Member of Parliament, who, in the President’s opinion, is most likely to command the confidence of Parliament”.

Wickremesinghe, on the other hand, has made a statement that he will continue to remain as prime minister and prove his majority in Parliament. He has also questioned the appointment of Rajapaksa as the prime minister on ground that it is illegal and unconstitutional.

According to Article 46(2) of the Constitution of Sri Lanka, “the Prime Minister shall continue to hold office throughout the period during which the Cabinet of Ministers continues to function under the provisions of the Constitution unless he, resigns his office by a writing under his hand addressed to the President; or ceases to be a Member of Parliament." Thus, Wickremesinghe pledged to challenge the move legally.

As far as the numbers are concerned, in the last parliamentary elections, the United National Party (UNP) won 106 seats in Parliament, the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP)-led UPFA won 95 seats, the Ilankai Tamil Arasu Kadchi (ITAK) won sixteen, the Sri Lanka Muslim Congress (SLMC) and Eelam People's Democratic Party (EPDP) won one seat each and People’s Liberation Front won six seats. Therefore, once again, the Tamil political parties may play a role in reinstating Wickremesinghe as prime minister if he has to prove his majority in Parliament, or the Supreme Court of Sri Lanka might step in to determine the constitutional validity of actions by the president.

File image of Mahinda Rajapaksa. AFP

File image of Mahinda Rajapaksa. AFP

Various calculations might have gone into the decision to bring Rajapaksa back to power as prime minister. First off, the president may have assumed that Rajapaksa can command the confidence of the Parliament and prove his majority in Parliament. In the local government elections held in February 2018, Rajapaksa’s party, the Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP) won in majority of local council seats in the south of the country. The meeting between Sirisena and Rajapaska, which took place in October 2018, may have paved the way for withdrawal of support to UNP, a condition the Joint Opposition (JO) insisted in the past in exchange of support to the government led by Sirisena.

Secondly, the Constitution provides only for two terms for the president and Rajapaksa cannot return to power as president for the third time under the present constitutional setup. Therefore, Rajapksa was sworn in as prime minister and the SLFP and SLPP combine might bring in the required constitutional changes by two-thirds majority in Parliament to have him continue as prime minister.

Despite the arguments and counter-arguments about the constitutional validity of appointing Rajapaksa as prime minister, internal developments indicate that Sri Lanka is once again plunged into a political crisis that can threaten the relative peace and the stability the country witnessed in the last three and half years of unity government formed with the support of Tamil political alliance, the Tamil National Alliance (TNA). The 19th Amendment to the Constitution of Sri Lanka, Article 33 (a) and (b), gives authority to the President of Sri Lanka to ensure that the Constitution is respected and upheld, and national reconciliation and integration are promoted.

In this context, the country made reasonable progress on reconciliation efforts by establishing the Office of Missing Persons (OMP) and by passing the Office of Reparations Bill based on the recommendations of the UNHRC resolution of 2015. The UNHRC resolution asked the Government of Sri Lanka to establish four transitional justice mechanisms to address the human rights violations that occurred during and after the war in 2009.

In 2009, the government defeated the Liberation Tigers and Tamil Eeelam (LTTE). In the battle, according to the United Nations, nearly 40,000 civilians lost their life and many went missing. The president also announced in October 2018 that all Tamil civilian lands held by the military in northern and eastern provinces will be released by 31 December, 2018.

The Sri Lankan Tamil parties extended support to Sirisena in the last presidential elections in 2015 to keep Rajapaksa away from power. By removing Wickremesinghe as prime minister, the moderate gains achieved in the last three years, by raising the trust of the Sri Lankan Tamil community on the State in implementing reconciliation measures in post-war Sri Lanka, may wither away.

The interim report of the Office of Missing Persons (OMP) as well as the report of the Constitutional Task Force on Reconciliation (CTF) present a complex picture pertaining to inter-ethnic relations in post-war Sri Lanka. Both the reports mention the lack of trust on the State institutions, continuing harassment and intimidation by the State authorities in conflict-affected provinces, differences of opinion among communities and political parties on what constitutes justice in post-war scenario, and increasing polarisation of society.

The lack of consensus among political parties in Sri Lana about transitional justice mechanisms, whether it will be domestic or international mechanisms or a combination of both, is also an issue. The Sri Lankan president’s address to the 73rd session of the United Nations General Assembly on 25 September hinted at his support to only domestic mechanism. He thanked the “security forces for their great sacrifices in ushering peace and ensuring territorial integrity of Sri Lanka”. He also requested "the international community to give Sri Lanka an opportunity to resolve their own issues, as the independence of a country is of paramount importance."

Differences within the unity government on issues pertaining to reconciliation, on drafting of new Constitution, handling of corruption cases and foreign investments have surfaced on a number of occasions in recent months. The no-confidence motion against Wickremesinghe in May 2018 is one such example. The then prime minister won the motion with the support of 122 members of Parliament who belong to the UNP, TNA and SLMC, out of total 225 members.

Reports also surfaced about the differences between Sirisena and Wickremesinghe concerning India’s investments in economic projects in Sri Lanka as agreed upon in the 2017 MoU between India and Sri Lanka. On 17 October, President Sirisena called on the Indian prime minister to reject reports that he allegedly made remarks referring to the possible involvement of India in a plot to assassinate him and the former defence secretary of Sri Lanka.

Wickremesinghe's official visit to India from 18 to 20 October seemed to convey and reassure India that it will remain as an important trade and development partner for Sri Lanka, despite the turbulent internal politics. However, in shifting political scenario, it remains to be seen how the bilateral engagement between India and Sri Lanka will evolve in future, if Rajapaksa remains in power through constitutional means. He had accused India’s RAW of being responsible for his defeat in 2015 elections. The JO and SLPP, led by Rajapksa, also consistently opposed any move towards reconciliation and political concessions to Tamil community.

Sri Lankan Tamil politics is also fluid. Within the Sri Lankan Tamil political parties, there is no unity on approach towards reconciliation, and expectations from the Sri Lankan State also vary. The TNA is considered moderate in its demands and tried to get maximum political concessions from the Sri Lankan government in post-war context.

Whereas the Northern Province Chief Minister CV Vigneswaran drifted away from TNA and formed a new party recently called the Thamizh Makkal Kootani (TMK) and is expected to take hard political line on issues concerning transitional justice mechanisms and on merger of northern and eastern provinces, a demand not acceptable to the SLMC. The forthcoming provincial elections by end of this year or early next year will also provide a clear picture about the strength of each party.

In conclusion, both the president and Wickremesinghe are stating the same article of the Constitution 42 (4) to defend their respective stands on the issue. However, the effect of thirty years of ethnic war and resultant destruction of Sri Lankan society has not completely subsided. The present political scenario in Sri Lanka is a setback in terms of unity needed to take the country towards the path of reconciliation.

As far as India-Sri Lanka relations are concerned, India responded cautiously towards the internal developments in Sri Lanka in recent years. It expects a political solution acceptable to all communities in Sri Lanka, which, under the present circumstances, might take a long time.


Updated Date: Oct 27, 2018 18:57 PM

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