Sri Lanka: A Tale of Two Premiers

It’s not often that two prime ministers live less than a mile apart. It is, however, a lot rarer when they both claim the same authority. Yet this is the situation in Colombo. Like two rival generals divided by a common taste for whitewashed luxury, Ranil Wickramasinghe and Mahinda Rajapaksa run their opposing camps from houses at a close proximity normally reserved for gangland warfare. Sri Lanka’s political situation, at best unstable since the routing of the Tamil Tigers by Rajapaksa in 2009, has snowballed in the past month into an unmitigated democratic crisis, with knives and fisticuffs in the Sri Lankan Parliament, and India and China eyeball to eyeball over who will be the main ally of the small but strategically vital island.

Sri Lanka’s executive President, Maithripala Sirisena, had a difficult task from the day he took office. A minister in Rajapaksa’s government, he unexpectedly spurned his former master to take power in a shock result by running on a message of political accountability, crackdowns on corruption and a broader end to what was becoming seen as the Godfather-esque Rajapaksa political dynasty. But despite losing office, the ambivalence of Rajapaksa’s Sinhalese Buddhist support base dogged Sirisena’s reformist agenda and ultimately, after limited enquiries into war crimes under the previous government, left the President’s ambitious agenda, and his coalition with the centre-right United National Party of which Wickramasinghe is the head, floundering. The situation only worsened when Rajapaksa, distanced from Sirisena’s and his former Sri Lanka Freedom Party, and his supporters essentially took control of local government at the next election.

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The consequence of this was that on October 26th, Sirisena unexpectedly removed Wickramasinghe as PM and appointed Rajapaksa in his place. Attempting to shore up his position, the consequences for Sirisena have been mixed. A politically empowered Rajapaksa, providing he cooperates with the Presidency, would ensure the loyalty of important voters and parliamentary representatives for the remainder of Sirisena’s term. The price of this is the alienation of Wickramasinghe’s UNP. Another problem is the almighty series of gambles Sirisena has made by appointing the very man he deposed and many of whose policies he pledged to retract. The move exposes Sirisena’s desperate need to appease his rivals in order to make progress, even at the cost of his key allies. Moreover, the Sirisena government reacted to the Rajapaksa regime’s authoritarian tendencies by reducing the powers of the President and delegating them to-of all people-the PM. Ironically, one of Sirisena’s few notable achievements in office, the curtailing of Presidential power, has come back to bite him in spectacular style, and by the appointment of Rajapaksa the clearest possible indication was made that Sirisena was in no position to ignore Rajapaksa’s demands himself. Rajapaksa’s return, therefore, and more importantly the return of his supporters and agenda to the corridors of power, is tantamount to a self-imposed constitutional coup against Sirisena.

But the other players in the crisis, Wickramasinghe and the UNP, were not prepared to take this lying down. The party controls 106 parliamentary seats, and it used those seats to force and win a vote of no confidence in the new government. As this was ignored, they called another, removing the last motion’s criticism of Sirisena in the hope of courting his acceptance. They won again, but once more there was no action on the result. Sirisena’s response was in fact to call a snap election and dissolve parliament in the hope of restoring stability or a popular mandate, which the judiciary promptly struck down as unconstitutional. A storm of protest ensued from the UNP, who claimed that not only was the government unconstitutionally remaining but that Sirisena had shown immense hypocrisy by dissolving parliament when he had gained office through promises of limits on Presidential action.

The result is two Prime Ministers. One is the defiant Rajapaksa, confident of his enduring support base both within and without his party and cemented by the local election results. The other is Wickramasinghe, who persists that his opponent has no constitutional right to office. With the cancellation of the snap election, Sri Lankans will not in theory be able to vote for a new Parliament until 2020. The only hope for a solution, therefore, would appear to be Sirisena, whose own attempts to revive his stalled agenda enabled Rajapaksa to regain power. Having alienated his UNP allies and consequently relying on both official and unofficial Rajapaksa loyalists to maintain control of the legislature, the President appears hamstrung. The UNP’s most recent indication is that they intend to form a broad political alliance with minor parties under a ten-member council, a move that looks curiously like a move towards an unofficial rival government. This is accompanied by protest and a ‘death fast’ with the clear intention of keeping Sirisena’s name firmly in the constitutional mud. As for Rajapaksa, his government continues, presumably confident in his consistently high popular appeal built on personal charisma-a trait rarer in the Sri Lankan assembly than many of its members would like to think.

But the problem extends far wider than Colombo. Sirisena had, in the early years of his regime, attempted to remove Sri Lanka from the Chinese sphere of influence favoured by Rajapaksa and to lean instead towards India and the West. But the obvious foreign policy clash of a Rajapaksa return to government complicates matters. From Sirisena’s perspective, it would appear the worst-case scenario would be the rolling back of his agenda and a return to the Chinese fold, and the best would be political gridlock. But China’s economic power in the country, built over a decade of loans during the Rajapaksa administration, may end up removing this decision from Sirisena’s hands entirely. As the constitutional standstill continues, it would seem that those on the streets of Colombo can only wait and see where their country’s unpredictable politics will place them in the world.

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