constitutional democracy, the constitution is the supreme law and governance
cannot be on the basis of personal prejudices or the whims and fancies of
individuals. The purpose of the constitution is to take political
decision making out of that personal realm to give stability and predictability
to government. It is now a month since the Black Friday of October 26
when the Sri Lankan polity was plunged into a constitutional and political
crisis by President Maithripala Sirisena when he decided he had no option but
to sack Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe and his government, and just as
arbitrarily to replace him with former president Mahinda Rajapaksa from the
ranks of the opposition.
recently President Sirisena has reaffirmed to the international and local media
that under no circumstances would he reappoint Mr Wickremesinghe as prime
minister. He has also now added Field Marshall Sarath Fonseka to this
list of non-options. The president's understanding of his role as
mandated by the constitution is an extremely personal one. It is almost
as if he considers his position as president as conferring personal rights in a
constitutional setting in which his personal prejudices can take first
place. The president has since that fateful October 26 offered a litany
of reasons for sacking the prime minister including corruption, not paying
attention to an alleged assassination attempt and not sharing information with
the president spoke those words highlighting his personal frustrations and his
motivations I was in Anuradhapura, next to the home district of the president,
talking to the staff of a hotel who were unaware of the constitutional issues
underlying the president's controversial utterances. They were despondent
for a different reason. They had just been informed that yet another tour
group, this time consisting of 40 foreign tourists had cancelled. Even
though the embattled political leaders may not be realizing it, the staff could
see their hope of a year's end bonus to treat their families recede.
manager of the hotel was more prepared than his staff to express his opinion on
the political crisis that had jeopardized all their incomes. He opined
that the politicians in parliament were no better than a pack of wolves.
But having said that he made it clear that he preferred some wolves over
others. When I asked him what did the people think about the current
situation and the political crisis he said that the people were happy
that Prime Minister Wickremesinghe had been shown the door and they were also
happy that former president Rajapaksa had been appointed in his place.
staff and manager of that hotel in Anuradhapura were not aware of the legal and
constitutional issues involved in the sacking of Prime Minister Wickremesinghe
and his replacement by former president Rajapaksa. They saw the
political crisis in terms of a fight for power between two political formations
and in particular between the two leaders of those formations. The previous
day a religious leader had asked me why Mr Wickremesinghe thought he should be
reinstated when he had only 45 parliamentarians backing him. This is an
indication of the abysmal state of political literacy in the country.
in this context that former president Rajapaksa has started seeking public
support to have general elections as soon as possible. This campaign has
a pragmatic basis and is a recognition that his government today has faced
defeat in parliament on every occasion on which there has been a vote.
The former president and his allies have been unable to get a majority of
parliamentarians to support them despite offering them huge inducements in the
form of money and position. The deadlock in government stems from this
former president's direct appeal to the electorate is an indication that he
currently has no intention of relinquishing the position of prime minister that
has been given to him by President Sirisena. He was given this position
arbitrarily and against the democratic norm that the prime minister's position
should either be given to the person who is most likely to command the
confidence of parliament or to the leader of the largest single party. At
the time of the dissolution of the government coalition, the UNF headed by
Prime Minister Ranil Wickemesinghe was the largest single party.
far President Sirisena has shown no intention of following the norms of
parliamentary democracy and appointing the person most likely to command the
confidence of the majority of parliamentarians as the prime minister. In
the ongoing crisis he has shown himself to be impervious to political appeals
in this regard. He has ignored two votes of no-confidence in the prime
minister he arbitrarily appointed. He has not heeded the public demonstrations
by tens of thousands of political and civic activists and members of the
general public or the pressure of the international community.
the other hand, the only institution that President Sirisena appears to be
willing to defer to is the judiciary. When he wished to extend his term
by a further year, he sought an advisory opinion from the Supreme Court.
He did not complain or oppose or seek to sack the judges who said that his term
was five years and not six years in terms of the 19th Amendment.
When he decided to sack parliament after having sacked the prime minister, he
did not publicly complain or oppose the judicial stay order. The
willingness of the president to respect the judiciary, which has emerged as the
arbiter between the executive and legislature in their clash needs to be
it was President Sirisena himself who gave leadership to the passage of the 19th Amendment
at the time it was being framed, and took considerable pride in its reining in
of the powers of the presidency. This supreme law was passed in 2015 by a
nearly unanimous vote in parliament with only one MP opposing it.
But now it appears that the president, the polity and the general public need to
be educated about the meaning of the 19th Amendment. The
19th Amendment reduced the president's powers and made this
branch of government to be co-equal with the legislative and judicial branches.
message of the 19th Amendment was understood by the university
students from Rajarata University where I took part in the discussion.
The staff of the hotel and their manager might have understood it too if they
had joined our discussion. The president may wish to have his preferences met
informally. But he cannot insist on having his prejudices accepted
formally. It cannot be that the country's future should be determined by
the president's personal likes and dislikes and that the determination of prime
minister, government, cabinet of ministers and the state of the economy should
be the subject of his personal discretion.
path that is collectively decided now in this crisis will determine what is
done in the future. The space given to presidential arbitrariness in the
present will be the space provided for arbitrariness in the future by
miscellaneous individuals who will preside on the political stage for a brief
while but will take decisions that have lasting consequences. The
decisions made today will determine how the country will be governed in the
future. President Sirisena should not be encouraged to set a precedent so
that the personal likes and dislikes of a future president will determine who
the future prime minister, cabinet of ministers and state of the economy will