High-stakes game in Colombo to intensify

Columnist  | Mohan K Tikku

Opinion, Oped

More important, Parliament Speaker Karu Jayasuriya refused to recognise Rajapaksa as the Prime Minister.

Ranil Wickremesinghe (Photo: AFP)

A week, they say, is a long time in politics. It is nearing three weeks since Sri Lanka’s President Maithripala Sirisena took almost everybody by surprise with his October 26 announcement appointing former President Mahinda Rajapaksa as Prime Minister after summarily sacking the incumbent Ranil Wickremesinghe. It is not the constitutional validity of the President’s decision that could be in question. Under Sri Lanka’s 1978 Constitution, the President is amply empowered to take an executive decision of that kind without consulting anybody. It is the political dynamics that this gambit has unleashed that makes one question the President’s calculus. It may be that Mr Sirisena has bitten off more than he could chew.

Simultaneously with appointing the new Prime Minister, the President had suspended Parliament till November 16, hoping that by then the hugely resourceful Mr Rajapaksa would be able to get the numbers on his side. Obviously, things have not moved as planned. For one, Mr Wickremesinghe did not yield to the President’s diktat arguing he still had a parliamentary majority. More important, Parliament Speaker Karu Jayasuriya refused to recognise Mr Rajapaksa as the Prime Minister. Left without much leeway, President Sirisena then called for Parliament to meet on November 14 for a floor test. Eventually, Mr Jayasuriya turned it to his advantage by convening the House after the Supreme Court had stayed its dissolution by the President.

At one point, Mr Rajapaksa seemed to be making some progress in acquiring parliamentary support. As Sri Lanka does not have an anti-defection law, there still was hope. Right in the beginning, five members defected to Mr Rajapaksa’s side, and four of them were immediately sworn in as ministers. A week ago, Mr Rajapaksa had managed a tally of 101 members against Mr Wickremesinghe’s 102 in the 225-member Parliament. While the six-member JVP had decided to stay out of the contest, there still was the 16-member Tamil National Alliance to turn to. A recent schism within the ranks of the TNA gave further room for Mr Rajapaksa to manoeuvre in. But despite trying, he still was short by seven or eight votes. That is when Mr Sirisena decided to make another critical move. Rather than see his candidate defeated in a vote, he decided to sack Parliament and go for early elections instead.

There are constitutional issues arising out of the President’s decision. The constitutional amendments enacted under Mr Sirisena’s own charge in April 2005 clearly limit the President’s power to dissolve the House and order fresh elections before it has completed four and a half years. The current Parliament, which was elected in August 2015, had yet to meet that condition. So, unsurprisingly, several members of the Opposition petitioned the Supreme Court for a ruling in the case. The court stayed the operation of the order for fresh elections till it hears the case in the first week of December. Until then, the situation was left in a state of limbo.

There indeed were issues between President and the Prime Minister. For one, Mr Wickremesinghe’s “arrogant style” of functioning was believed to have riled many in his own party, besides upsetting the President. Second, there were the oncoming presidential sweepstakes. Mr Wickeremesinghe’s own presidential ambitions are well known. Now, Mr Sirisena too, despite his earlier protestations, appeared to be having second thoughts on the subject.

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Shortly after his election as President, Mr Sirisena had announced — with a touching gesture of self-abnegation so uncommon in politics — that he would not seek a second term as President even though the Constitution permitted it. Possibly, he had made that grand gesture to demonstrate how different he was from his predecessor. For Mr Rajapaksa had the Constitution specially amended to permit himself an unlimited stay at the top as he was close to completing his second term as President. This provision too was repealed and the two-term bar on holding the office of President restored by the new government in 2015.

Since Mr Rajapaksa could not be the President one more time, he had to be satisfied with the post of Prime Minister. So there could be no clash of ambitions between the two leaders. Besides, Mr Sirisena, who does not have much of a mass base, would need Mr Rajapaksa’s help if his presidential ambitions were to be realised. Given the prevailing climate of political uncertainty in Sri Lanka, though, one could never be too sure if these equations would stand the test of Machiavellian politics.

But the real elephant in the room was China. Mr Rajapaksa is known to be close to the Chinese. It was during his presidency that the Chinese footprint in Sri Lanka increased to an unprecedented level. Nobody seemed to mind if, in the process, Sri Lanka had gone neck-deep into debt. The handing out of the strategically vital Hambantota port on a 99-year lease to the Chinese too was a consequence of the same indebtedness. So it came as no surprise when the Chinese ambassador became the first — and only — member of the diplomatic corps in Colombo to call on Mr Rajapaksa shortly after he was made the Prime Minister.

President Sirisena’s charge of an Indian-backed assassination plot against him — somewhat clumsily denied later — was part of the same backroom drama. As Mr Rajapaksa was appointed Prime Minister, many observers of the Sri Lankan scene saw it as a temporary aberration that would self-correct itself when Parliament met a few weeks later. That didn’t happen. Instead, the stakes were raised further as President Sirisena indicated that he would quit the presidency if Mr Wickremesinghe were to return as Prime Minister. The question that still hung in the Colombo air was: how would a President, who was not prepared to accept an adverse vote in Parliament, react if he has to face an adverse vote at the hustings in January? Meanwhile, as Parliament met on November 14, the House endorsed a confidence motion in Mr Wickremesinghe as Prime Minister.

That, on the face of it, should have settled the issue. But those who know Mr Rajapaksa would know that he is no quitter, and the President is in no mood to relent. From all indications, readers would be entitled to expect more climaxes and anticlimaxes to follow in the political theatre that started from the President’s office three weeks earlier.

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