[Burning Issue] Constitutional crisis in Sri Lanka

Context

  • President Maithripala Sirisena sacked Mr Wickremesinghe, replacing him with former President Mahinda Rajapaksa.
  • The President subsequently prorogued Parliament for over two weeks, deferring the possibility of a floor test until November 16.

INTRODUCTION

  • The recent political turmoil in Sri Lanka brings to the surface the debate on domestic issues vis-à-vis South Asian geopolitics. The ongoing chaos has definitely gotten New Delhi worried, as Wickremesinghe was seen as close to India.
  • In the last few years, the relationship between India and Sri Lanka had improved considerably and was looking positive after Wickremesinghe’s visit to India last month.

Background

Executive Power in Sri Lanka

  • In Sri Lanka, the President is the most dominant political force. The Prime Minister’s role is limited to a deputy to the President, besides being the leader of Cabinet.
  • However, in the latest development, the final call to decide whether the President has the power to straightway dismiss or replace a Prime Minister lies with the Sri Lankan Supreme Court.
  • In 2015, Sri Lanka had amended its constitution to prevent the president from sacking any prime minister unless they had died, resigned or lost the confidence of parliament.

Constitutional provisions

  1. The constitutional provision that Mr Sirisena has cited in the official letter to Mr Wickremesinghe does not grant the President authority to remove a Prime Minister from office
  2. Section 42(4) of the Constitution merely enables the President to appoint a PM
  3. The President has taken the position that since he is the appointing authority, he also has the implicit power to sack the PM
  4. Mr Wickremesinghe has dismissed the constitutional validity of the presidential action and has argued that he still commands a majority in Parliament
  5. His line of argument is that only Parliament has the constitutionally sanctioned authority to decide whether he could continue in office as PM or not
  6. It also suggests that as long as there is no no-confidence motion passed in Parliament against him and the cabinet, his position as PM cannot be invalidated by the President at his will

19th Constitutional Amendment 

  1. The argument seems to have derived its salience in the context of the 19th Amendment to Sri Lanka’s Constitution, passed in 2015
  2. The 19th Amendment has restored the Westminster framework of the relationship between the head of state, the PM, and Parliament
  3. It curtailed powers of the President under the 1978 Constitution (the original) as well as the 18th Amendment passed in 2010
  4. Among the presidential powers taken away by the 19th Amendment, which is valid, is the one pertaining to the President’s powers over the PM
  5. The 19th Amendment, which created a dual executive, made the PM’s position secure from the arbitrary actions of the President
  6. Thus, the office of the PM falls vacant only under limited circumstances. Death, voluntary resignation, loss of support in Parliament, rejection by Parliament of the budget, and ceasing to be an MP are these circumstances
  7. Sacking by the President is certainly not in this list

Speaker’s role in prorogation

  • The Speaker of the Sri Lankan Parliament, Karu Jayasuriya, urged President Maithripala Sirisena to protect the rights and privileges of Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe until his majority in the House was challenged by another member.
  • Further, citing possible serious consequences of the President’s decision to suspend Parliament till November 16, he pressed Mr. Sirisena to reconvene the House.
  • The prorogation should be done in consultation with the Speaker. Mr. Jayasuriya said the move would have serious and undesirable consequences for the country and urged Mr. Sirisena to reconsider the decision.
  • Rajapaksa said he had accepted Mr. Sirisena’s invitation to assume charge as Prime Minister as he was aware that the people expected our leadership and protection, at this moment of national peril.
  • In the statement, signed as the ‘Prime Minister of Democratic Socialist Republic of Sri Lanka,’ Mr. Rajapaksa said the primary objective of leaders and lawmakers who had joined him and Mr. Sirisena was to ensure early conduct of provincial and parliamentary elections.

What are the reasons for the replacement of PM?

  • Sri Lankan President Maithripala Sirisena claimed that there is no constitutional violation in his recent appointment of former President Mahinda Rajapaksa in place of Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe.
  • In a televised address, Mr. Sirisena sought to justify his decision — to abruptly induct Mr. Rajapaksa as PM and then prorogue Parliament until November 16.
  • He cited sharp political and cultural differences with Mr. Wickremesinghe, with whom he formed Sri Lanka’s first national unity government in January 2015, among the factors.
  • Sirisena tied two main reasons to his falling out with Mr. Wickremesinghe — corruption related to the bond scam at the Central Bank and the alleged assassination plot targeting him.
  • Sri Lanka police functions under the Law and Order Ministry, helmed by a Minister from Mr. Wickremesinghe’s United National Party. The manner in which authorities probed the assassination plot was the most proximate and powerful reason for appointing Mr. Rajapaksa.
  • Meanwhile, Mr. Rajapaksa said that he accepted the invitation to assume charge as PM as he was aware that the people expected our leadership and protection at this moment of national peril.
  • The primary objective was to ensure an early holding of provincial and parliamentary elections, he said in a statement that he signed off as the ‘Prime Minister of Democratic Socialist Republic of Sri Lanka’.

The aftermath of this crisis:

  • Mr. Sirisena’s appointment of Mr. Rajapaksa even before voting out Mr. Wickremesinghe on the floor of Parliament is nothing but blatant abuse of his executive powers.
  • Guided by narrow political interests, the President’s actions betray an utter disregard for the parliamentary process.
  • In resorting to these emergency measures, he has not only put democracy in serious peril but also let down Sri Lankans, including a sizeable section of the Tamil and Muslim minorities that backed him in the critical 2015 election.
  • The political crisis in the island nation triggered violence on October 28. One person was killed and two others injured as the bodyguards of Petroleum Minister Arjuna Ranatunga fired at the supporters of Rajapaksa when they surrounded the cabinet member.

India’s concerns

  • India did not have a broad array of options regarding the situation. India should stay focussed on long-term priorities like bilateral and regional connectivity and trade ties with Sri Lanka, and allow the situation in Colombo to work itself out.
  • India reminded Sri Lanka of the constitutional process, following the ongoing political crisis. India’s response came as both the leaders began an outreach to the global diplomatic community.
  • This was the first time that India commented on the situation in Colombo which has turned into a stand-off between Mr. Sirisena and Mr. Wickremesinghe.
  • The friction between Mr. Sirisena and Mr. Wickremesinghe began with a strong statement from the latter during his visit to Delhi, which seemed to target the President for delay in India-backed projects.
  • Wickremesinghe met select Colombo-based diplomats. It is said to have included those from the European Union, the U.S., the U.K., Canada, Australia, Italy, France, Switzerland, South Africa and India.
  • Many of the countries had put out similar sounding statements and tweets, underscoring the need to respect due constitutional process and democracy.
  • The countries are loosely identifying themselves as being like-minded on this development

CHALLENGES FOR INDIA-

India has been struggling to maintain its influence in the neighborhood as many countries in the region (Pakistan, Nepal, Maldives and Sri Lanka) have shown increased leaning toward Beijing.

  • The structural constraints on New Delhi’s strategic space in South Asia go deeper. India is in an unenviable position. It is a regional power that is large enough for the asymmetrical nature of its relationship with its neighbours to make them nervous.
  • But it is also a status quo power that lacks the economic and military muscle of the extra-regional revisionist power its neighbours inevitably look to as a balancer. That makes the question of who is in power—or which political systems are in place—subordinate.
  • India’s backseat approach to Sri Lanka drives home the point, that India cannot fully hope to counter China in its own backyard and elsewhere until it really doubles down on economic reforms, which the government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi has only embraced partially.
  • India needs to foster local growth and economic interconnectivity in South Asia. It has a huge stake, geopolitically, in Sri Lanka, and cannot afford to let it drift away.
  • The time is coming for India to follow the lead of the United States and Brazil’s president-elect, and grow beyond insisting publicly that it does not view China as a competitor, but as an economic and strategic rival and openly embrace relationships with other countries that seek to balance and contain China.
  • The region that India has regarded as its natural sphere of influence is slipping out of its hands. This will provide a new wake-up call to New Delhi as it needs to rethink and reformulate its policies toward the South Asian region. China has successfully managed to gain greater influence and leverage by exploiting its financial strength.
  • The question now is whether India needs to combine some hard power with its soft-power approach and establish its status as an important player in the Indian Ocean region and South Asia.
  • The domestic turmoil in Sri Lanka has a greater geopolitical, regional, and political connotation. The current leaders are overtly pro-Beijing and have consistently worked toward using China to counter Indian influence.
  • It was no surprise that days before Wickremesinghe’s visit to India, Sirisena even made claims to the cabinet that the Indian Research and Analysis Wing (RAW) was involved in a plot to assassinate him. Such accusations highlight the insecurity and mistrust harboured by the current Sri Lankan president toward India.
  • The concerns of the Chinese having a forward military base in Sri Lanka that was projected by US Vice-President Mike Pence were countered by Wickremesinghe last month, but the recent developments give further strength to the US concerns.

INDIA-CHINA GEOPOLITICAL TUSSLE

  • The crisis highlights the role of powerful Asian rivals, India and China. While Sirisena tried to free his country from Chinese debt, he was instead drawn back to China after being unable to do so, and
  • He ended up giving “China a controlling equity stake and a 99-year lease for Hambantota port, which it handed over in December 2017,” a move which alarmed the United States and India, which fear its potential strategic applications.
  • Nonetheless, the recent changes put in question the proposed Indian investments in Sri Lanka, primarily in Mattala Airport, the Port of Colombo’s East Container Terminal, the LNG (liquefied natural gas) plant in Kerawalapitiya, and Palaly Airport in Jaffna. They also cast a shadow on Indian-Sri Lankan relations.
  • The United States and the European Union have also asserted the need for following the constitutional process, but China was quick to congratulate Rajapaksa. Cheng Xueyuan, the Chinese ambassador to Sri Lanka, personally called on the newly appointed PM.
  • The promptness with which Beijing congratulated Rajapaksa underscores the arguments that he is a pro-China man. During his term as president, the Sri Lankan economy became riddled with Chinese debt that culminated with Beijing gaining control of the Hambantota Port for 99 years.
  • It should come as no surprise that China is focused on its national interests, and is not just a benevolent, non-interfering state that wants to build infrastructure for the good of the world. What else could explain the haste by which Chinese President Xi Jinping congratulated Rajapaksa, before the resolution of the crisis?
  • The reasons China is happy are quite obvious. In the last few years, some resistance was appearing in Colombo toward the incoming Chinese investments.
  • The government was becoming more concerned about the long-term impacts on the domestic economy and financial stability. A number of projects had also witnessed some violence and opposition.
  • The appointment of Rajapaksa as the new prime minister could change this direction of thought and give Beijing added leverage. This also provides a new lease on life for the Chinese Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) and makes way for more Chinese investments.
  • Despite statements of neutrality, there are persistent rumors that China is favoring Sirisena and Rajapaksa. A deputy minister in Wickremesinghe’s administration, Ranjan Ramanayake, accused China of paying for Rajapaksa to buy legislators.
  • It also shows that China has great sway in the domestic politics of South Asian countries.
  • The crisis in Sri Lanka illustrates the role China can play in upsetting local political calculations elsewhere, even without direct interference.
  • The New York Times quotes Brahma Chellaney, an analyst and critic of China, who often advises the Indian government as saying: “The political turmoil, more than Rajapaksa’s return to power, works to China’s advantage. In country after country, China has exploited internal disarray to advance its objectives.”
  • In Sri Lanka’s case, China’s “deep pockets” have meant that even though the Sirisena government initially promised to re-evaluate Chinese investment, it was unable to because India and the United States were unable to provide an equivalent amount of money for its projects — or to get it out of Chinese debt.
  • However, now that China’s “debt-trap” strategy has been demonstrated, other countries must do their most to avoid it, and richer countries like the United States should step up and offer alternative investment schemes.

CONCLUSION

India must avoid erring too much on the side of caution, however reasonable this may be, unlike in case of Maldives political crisis.

In Sri Lanka’s case, military intervention likewise ought to be on the table, one that is better than India remaining silent and watching a geopolitical noose be slowly drawn around it, especially if it is proven that the democratic and legal processes of the country are being thwarted with financial pressure, thuggish force, or extra-constitutional decisions.

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