Sri Lanka’s constitutional crisis: A battle between two centres of power

Ranil Wickremesinghe (left) and Mahinda Rajapaksa, the two men claiming to be the rightful Prime Minister of Sri Lanka. (Photos: Facebook)

On 26 October, Sri Lanka’s President Maithripala Sirisena abruptly replaced the country’s prime minister, triggering a constitutional crisis. In the weeks that followed, he suspended Parliament and dissolved Cabinet.

The sacked prime minister, Ranil Wickremesinghe, said his removal was unconstitutional and has refused to step down from office. Wickremesinghe’s replacement is Mahinda Rajapaksa, a former president who ruled from 2005 to 2015 – and who lost power after Sirisena and Wickremesinghe teamed up to defeat him.

Relations between Sirisena and Wickremesinghe have broken down in the past year, culminating in Wickremesinghe’s dismissal and in Sirisena appointing his former foe.

Sirisena’s bid to call for snap elections hit a speed bump on 13 November, after the Supreme Court overturned his decree to dissolve Parliament.

While the ruling was celebrated by some, tensions are still running high over the country’s constitutional crisis – with the two men claiming the office of Prime Minister.

The Asia Media Centre spoke to Sanjana Hattotuwa, a commentator and PhD student at Otago University, about his take on recent events in Sri Lanka and their impact on the country.

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Mahinda Rajapaksa and Maithripala Sirisena Sri Lanka (Photo: FB)

Mahinda Rajapaksa (left) was installed as Prime Minister by President Maithripala Sirisena (right) on 26 October. (Photo: Maithripala Sirisena/Facebook)

What do you make of the replacement of the prime minister?

Sanjana Hattotuwa: “This is astounding because in 2014, and again in 2015, and at every imaginable opportunity in Parliament and in public, President Maithripala Sirisena vowed never to allow the violence, corruption and political nepotism embodied by [former President] Mahinda Rajapaksa to set foot again.

“When you ask what set it off, the easy answer comes from President Sirisena himself who posted three points on 29 October: Corruption of Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe, an alleged assassination plot against him [by members in Wickremesinghe’s political party], and cultural differences.

“I think it comes down to President Sirisena taking a gamble around the continuation of his tenure in the President’s office – of him standing a better chance, bizarrely, with the former President Rajapaksa than with Wickremesingshe.

“There have been increasingly public and ugly tensions between President Sirisena and the deposed PM Wickremesinghe. Even so, it seems entirely bizarre. The escalation is quite incredible.”

“We have two Prime Ministers, two centres of power, two governments and public officials who are fearful of what the consequences of following one party or the other will be.

What are the concerns on the street?

“It doesn’t really matter if you support Rajapaksa or Wickremesingshe. What people care about is due process.

“They are offering the equivalent of US$2.8 million per party leader if they cross over ... and US$1.2 million per MP who is not a party leader. Even with that money, they’ve not been able to capture the majority in Parliament.

“Other key areas of concern was what the President and the new PM did around media. By Sunday, October 28, they had kicked out everyone who was in state media, and put in their own people.

“It’s a complete capture of state media – print, broadcast and electronic media are projecting and promoting the president’s narrative. [There is] a blackout of anything negative and pushing positive messages, so it means both suppressing and amplifying narratives – the classic strategy of propaganda.

“The private media is compounding it for fear of reprisal or loss of advertising; either framing reports to support the President’s narrative or staying silent, allowing the spread of misinformation.”

What do the events mean for the people of Sri Lanka?

“The man and woman on the street are intellectually disconnected from the technical and legal constitutional argument, emotionally tired, and in favour of a quick resolution  which is quite dangerous.

“We have two Prime Ministers, two centres of power, two governments, and public officials who are fearful of what the consequences of following one party or the other will be.

“People have complete paralysis, confusion and fear that this will be negotiated and resolved on the street through violence.”

Is there a peaceful way forward?

“Both parties now don’t want to lose face. Unlike New Zealand, in Sri Lanka, the resolution of political difference often spills over into physical violence. This is symptomatic of a history of decades of political violence. It’s what you’d call a fragile democracy.

“The concern is if it spills over into violence, you have a state machinery now unable to contain it or even use it for political mileage.”

Sanjana Hattotuwa is Senior Researcher at the Centre for Policy Alternatives.

– Asia Media Centre