Colombo, Sri Lanka – For a brief moment on Thursday, it appeared as though Sri Lankan politicians might be able to return soon to the country’s suspended parliament to thrash out their differences over who should be prime minister – and thus end an acrimonious power struggle that has shaken the South Asian nation.
The idea took shape in the morning when newly appointed Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa told academics at his office that President Maithripala Sirisena had decided to lift the suspension and resume sessions on Monday.
The declaration was nearly as shocking as Sirisena’s decision on October 26 to fire Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe and replace him with Rajapaksa, a popular and controversial former leader that the president had defeated in a 2015 election.
Critics said Wickremesinghe’s removal was the first illegal transfer of power since Sri Lanka established an electoral democracy in 1931. Citing constitutional amendments passed in 2015, they argued the president does not have the authority to sack a prime minister.
Still, many expected Sirisena to withstand mounting local and international pressure and stick to his apparent plan to give Rajapaksa time to muster support in the 225-member legislature.
That’s why Wickremesinghe, who maintains that he commands a majority in the House and has been calling for a parliamentary vote, was quick to celebrate when the news of Rajapaksa’s statement broke.
“The people’s voices have been heard,” he said in a triumphant post on Twitter. “Democracy will prevail.”
The mood at Temple Trees, the prime minister’s official residence, where Wickremesinghe has remained holed up over the past week, was jubilant.
But the day dragged on without an official statement from the president’s office. Then, in the late afternoon, two associates of Rajapaksa made an abrupt u-turn in a news conference, saying Sirisena will keep parliament shut until November 16 in line with his initial suspension order.
Legislators Mahindananda Aluthgamage and Susil Premajayantha did not stop there. They said that even when parliament reconvenes, the United People’s Freedom Alliance (UPFA) – a coalition between Sirisena and Rajapaksa’s parties – does not plan to hold a confidence vote and allow legislators to choose between the two leaders claiming the prime minister’s role.
“We have decided to convene parliament on November 16,” Aluthgamage told reporters. “That’s because we need time to present a people-friendly budget.”
He added: “There is no vote scheduled for November 16.”
Tug of war
Then, as morning broke on Friday, more than 100 legislators from all major political parties except the UPFA showed up at the parliament house, and submitted a motion with 118 signatures, demanding Speaker Karu Jayasuriya defy the president’s suspension and convene the House immediately.
The figure is five more than the majority of 113 a prime minister requires to stay in power.
Jayasuriya told legislators Sirisena made a verbal commitment the previous day to summon parliament on November 7.
“I am trying my best to resolve this non-violently, but if that fails I have to think of alternatives,” he told the politicians in an apparent sign he was not willing to back down on resuming parliament.
There was still no comment from Sirisena’s office.
But the huge show of strength once again reignited hopes Wickremesinghe may survive as prime minister.
“This tug of war will continue for some time,” said Rajitha Keethi Tennakoon, a Colombo-based political analyst.
“It’s very difficult to predict what might happen – the only place to watch is the president’s secretariat,” he said.
Tennakoon, like many in Colombo, believes Wickremesinghe’s chances at remaining in the post would fade the longer Rajapaksa stayed in power.
Prior to the crisis, the deposed prime minister, whose popularity has declined amid widespread anger over the rising cost of living, had a slight edge over the Sirisena-led UPFA, commanding the support of 106 legislators compared with his rivals’ 96.
But the more Rajapaksa consolidated power, Tennakoon said, the more likely he was to gain an upper hand and tempt defections from the UNP itself.
Already, at least five legislators from the UNP have switched sides, taking up positions in the cabinet headed by Rajapaksa, who insists his appointment was legitimate. The former president has his sight set on the UNP because key minority parties have either pledged not to support him or abstain in any vote of confidence.
The Tamil National Alliance, which commands the support of 16 legislators, said they will not back Rajapaksa, who ruled the country from 2005 to 2015 and has been accused of grave human rights and abuses, because of his treatment of the ethnic minority at the close of the country’s 26-year civil war in 2009, analysts said.
The remaining six legislators of the People’s Liberation Front are expected not to take any sides because of anger at both leaders.
Tennakoon said he was “sure” Sri Lanka will see more UNP legislators defect to the UPFA in the coming days. Although the situation remained fluid, “it looks like Rajapaksa will win this and stay on as prime minister, regardless of whether this [his appointment] was constitutional or not,” he said.
‘Change political facts’
Asanga Welikala, a Sri Lankan law professor at the University of Edinburgh, also said Sirisena, whose political future is now tied to Rajapaksa, was likely to recall parliament only when he had the numbers.
“The whole enterprise is clearly illegal, but Rajapaksa is out to change the political facts,” Welikala said.
The former president, whose Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP) trounced its opponents in local council elections in February, was now gearing towards “dissolving parliament and holding a general election”, Welikala said.
That’s because Rajapaksa’s party, according to observers, has a high chance of winning early elections due of public anger over the failure of Wickremesinghe’s government to deliver on promises of economic reform, cracking down on corruption and accountability for war atrocities.
The Sri Lankan rupee lost 12 percent of its value against the US dollar this year, while growth slowed to 3.3 percent in 2017 – its lowest level in 16 years.
Rajapaksa has said he planned to hold snap elections as soon as possible, despite the Constitution stating that parliament cannot be dissolved before four-and-a-half years have passed since its election. That means the current parliament, which met for the first time in September 2015, cannot be dissolved until March next year, according to Welikala, the law professor.
But Rajapaksa was likely to disregard that provision because “they don’t care about legality or the rule of law,” he said.
“This is unprecedented. We’ve had many issues with our democracy, but one thing we’ve never had is an illegal transfer of power,” said Welikala.
“If the government can clearly violate the constitution and get away with it, it sets a very dangerous precedent.”
If Rajapaksa and his party were to win general elections, Paikiasothy Saravanamuttu, executive director of Colombo-based Centre for Policy Alternatives, said he feared the former president would once again lift the two-term limit on the presidency and try to return to that post.
The only way to protect Sri Lanka’s democracy was to defeat Rajapaksa in a vote, he said.
And that would depend on how the country’s Sinhalese Buddhist majority, who regard Rajapaksa as a hero for ending the country’s bloody civil war, viewed the current constitutional crisis.
“The argument for strong government seems to have prevailed over democracy at the moment. So the issue is as to whether the people are going to vote for a strong government or against the total violation of the constitution,” he said.
But even though he went on to describe the future as “bleak”, Saravanamuttu said Sri Lankans are faced with a political drama that will undoubtedly twist and turn to the end.
“We’ll just have to wait and see,” he said.