More confusion than clarity has been generated in the Sri Lankan Parliament’s sensational proceedings on Wednesday when the government of purported PM Mahinda Rajapaksa was voted out. The country’s Supreme Court, seen invariably as acquiescent to the powers of the day, gave an excellent opportunity for self-correction as it nullified the blatantly autocratic decision of President Maithripala Sirisena to annul Parliament and change Prime Ministers midstream when at least 20 months remained in the life of the legislature. The court ruling showed the way forward to solve the power vacuum created by the President’s undemocratic actions, which was simply to go back to Parliament and let its members decide who had the majority — Ranil Wickremesinghe or Mahinda Rajapaksa. Far from clearing the way, the short House session has only exacerbated the unprecedented constitutional crisis gripping the island nation.
The legitimacy of the voice vote ordered by Speaker Kala Jayasuriya is being questioned by supporters of former strongman Mahinda Rajapaksa, who is trying to usurp power through an extraordinary alliance with his former SLFP Cabinet minister after President Sirisena fell out with Mr Wickremesinghe. The triangular personality bouts among the three key players in Sri Lankan politics since October 26, when a dramatic coup was announced, have led to open horse-trading and defections in Parliament. Having failed to muster a majority even by questionable methods, it appears at least two players are preparing to hold the Constitution to ransom. The defections went the other way, with MPs crossing back to Ranil’s side in the vote. A failure to whip up a majority had sordid consequences, with Mr Sirisena calling last week for Parliament’s dissolution and ordering fresh elections next January. The checks and balances between the President’s powers, and the legislature and judiciary, seem to have evaporated and the only silver lining was Parliament’s resumption for a contentious day.
The immediate future is uncertain as the cards may still lie with the President, although he seemed undone by the court’s promising verdict of sending the issue back to the legislature. What he chooses to do now will be of paramount importance in this ugly power struggle that may have been pre-empted by the pro-India leanings of Ranil Wickremesinghe over infrastructure projects. India can only sit this one out and watch developments, as a key neighbour placed strategically on Indian Ocean routes wrangles over who shares power now and whether the nation goes to the people once again soon. Clearly, there are major international forces at play even if it seems that Ranil Wickremesinghe’s government may have a majority in Parliament. The President may have to introspect on whether a coup was needed at all when his own party was in alliance with the government of the day. Democracy is indeed facing its greatest challenge now in Sri Lanka.