Lankan truce may not be lasting

Sri Lanka Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe. REUTERS

An unseemly crisis that has roiled Sri Lankan politics for almost two months has been defused somewhat with Ranil Wickremesinghe being reinstated as prime minister. On October 26, President Maithripala Sirisena sacked Wickremesinghe and appointed Mahinda Rajapaksa as the new PM. This was an arbitrary, illegal and unconstitutional move. Not only was Wickremesinghe the leader of the largest party and commanded a majority in Parliament but also, according to the Sri Lankan constitution, removing a PM is the prerogative of Parliament not of the President. With Wickremesinghe refusing to step aside and Sirisena appointing Rajapaksa as the PM, Sri Lanka found itself in a bizarre situation: it had two prime ministers. Wickremesinghe called for reconvening of Parliament to prove his majority but Sirisena went on to dissolve Parliament and called for fresh elections. Meanwhile, Wickremesinghe and his supporters took the matter to court. Last week, Sri Lanka’s Supreme Court ruled unanimously that Sirisena’s order to dissolve Parliament and hold new elections was unconstitutional. The apex court decision is historic. It is the first time in Sri Lanka’s recent history that the judiciary has delivered a verdict challenging the President. Besides, the verdict has forced Sirisena to respect the Constitution and reappoint Wickremesinghe as the PM.

Wickremesinghe’s return is a major setback for Sirisena and Rajapaksa. Once allies, they parted ways when Sirisena defeated Rajapaksa in the 2015 presidential election. The recent crisis saw the duo back together, conniving against Wickremesinghe. They are down at the moment but not out. Wickremesinghe can expect them to engineer defections to bring him down in the coming months. Although it was Wickremesinghe’s party, the UNP, that formed the core of the political front that propelled Sirisena to the presidency, the two have never seen eye to eye. Indeed, it was these differences that culminated in the recent crisis. Sirisena and Wickremesinghe are going to find it even more difficult to work together in the months ahead. Wickremesinghe and his supporters could attempt to impeach Sirisena but they will need a two-thirds majority in Parliament to succeed. At present, Wickremesinghe commands only a simple majority.

The worst of the crisis is over but Sri Lanka’s politics will remain turbulent in the coming months with leaders engineering defections and counter-defections. The country is in the grip of a policy making paralysis, which would worsen in the likely event of Sirisena-Wickremesinghe relations deteriorating. It could culminate in fresh elections to Parliament. But fresh elections may not provide a clear verdict. In which case, the unstable situation could continue.

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Lankan truce may not be lasting

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