[op-ed snap] From uncertainty to crisis: On Sri Lanka Elections

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Mains Paper 2: IR | India & its neighborhood- relations

From UPSC perspective, the following things are important:

Prelims level: Not much

Mains level: Constitutional crisis in Sri Lanka & how it could affect India


Context

New government in Sri Lanka

  1. Sri Lanka’s fragile process of democratic recovery is in peril
  2. Sri Lanka’s President Maithripala Sirisena sacked Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe and appointed Mahinda Rajapaksa, his political rival, as the new Prime Minister
  3. This was done by the President in order to resolve a deepening political dispute between himself and Mr. Wickremesinghe

Impact of this move

  1. This act has only pushed Sri Lanka into an unprecedented constitutional crisis, beginning a potentially dangerous phase of an on-going three-cornered power struggle among three leaders
  2. At the centre of the crisis is the lack of clarity as the new Prime Minister seems to have been appointed without a constitutionally valid vacancy for the position
  3. The sudden developments in Sri Lanka have thrown into uncertainty the few steps that the country finally took this year to address post-war issues of transitional justice and rehabilitation, which it had committed to at the UN Human Rights Council in 2015

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

Future of democracy uncertain

  1. What is in doubt is the constitutionality of a series of actions by Mr Sirisena
  2. And if they are valid at all, they set a bad precedent for future constitutional governance in Sri Lanka
  3. Contrary to the letter and spirit of the 19th Amendment, no PM will be secure in his/her position against arbitrary dismissal by the President
  4. These circumstances also warrant judicial intervention to resolve the constitutional doubt

Way forward

  1. The Sri Lankan presidency remains the country’s most powerful office despite the restrictions introduced by the 19th amendment of 2015
  2. Delhi, which had been openly relieved at Sirisena’s election, should be prepared to deal once again with a politician who describes India as an “elder brother” but appears to derive great pleasure from provoking India-China rivalry

With inputs from editorial: Storm in Colombo

Sri Lanka’s Constitution – Strides in the Right Direction
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