The Churn in Sri Lanka Politics
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Issue Net Edition | Date : 30 Nov , 2018

The political crisis in Sri Lanka deepened further on November 23 with Mahinda Rajapaksa, Prime Minister installed by President Maithripala  Sirisena lost control of the Parliament Selection Committee (which sets the agenda for Parliament) after a vote in Parliament was taken   through the electronic voting system and the Opposition secured the control of the committee with 121 voting for and none against. It also proved that Rajapaksa doesn’t have majority in Parliament which has 225 Parliamentarians. There was violence in Parliament with chairs, books and chili powder flying when two no-confidence motions  came up for voting and the Speaker eventually had to resort to voice voting. Rajapaksa lost both the no-confidence motions, based on which the Speaker announced Sri Lanka has no Prime Minister and Parliament does not exist. But Rajapaksa refuses to give up the Premiership saying such issues cannot be decided through voice vote and Speaker has no authority to remove him.

Sri Lanka was plunged into political crisis on October 26 when President Sirisena abruptly fired Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe and appointed Rajapaksa as Prime Minister, without even taking the Speaker into confidence. Thereafter, multiple political parties, civil organizations and even one of the three election commissioners petitioned the Supreme Court against dissolution of Parliament by Sirisena, terming it unconstitutional. Srisena maintained he dissolved Parliament and called elections in January to avoid violence in Parliament and across the country. This was a lame excuse because Wickremesinghe indeed enjoyed majority support. The Speaker then convened meeting of Parliamentarians, where observers indicated Rajapaksa could not win majority vote. It is only then that Srisena changed track, extended dissolution of Parliament and called for elections in January next year.

However on November 13, Sri Lanka’s Supreme Court stayed President Sirisena’s order to dissolve Parliament and also restrained the Election Commission from proceeding with polls in January next. Sirisena’s actions drew adverse global reaction. Spokesman for UN Secretary General António Guterres said the UN Secretary General underlines utmost importance of respecting democratic processes and institutions and resolving differences in accordance rule of law and due process, adding, “He renews his call on the Government to ensure peace and safety for all Sri Lankans and uphold its commitments to human rights, justice and reconciliation”. The US has held back $500 million aid program to Sri Lanka and Japan has put on hold plans to extend a soft loan of $1.4 billion. In addition, the EU has warned it could withdraw duty-free concessions for Sri Lankan exports.

It is quite possible Sirisena knew Rajapakse could not get majority support beforehand but yet sacked Wickremesinghe, only to give more time to Rajapaksa for garnering support. Interestingly, Rajapaksa, marked as ‘Tamil Butcher’ due to the brutal end of the Tamil civil war and war crimes when he was President, is throwing feelers to Tamils that he and Sirisena would make a decision very soon on  demand of the Tamil minority community to release all Tamil prisoners; dangling the carrot to swing crucial Tamil votes.

In another significant development, Rajapaksa with 44 former MPs defected from the Sirisena-led Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) and joined the Sri Lanka Podujana Peremuna (SLPP) formed by Rajapaksa’s brother in 2016. According to an SLPP source, 65 out of 82 former SLFP MPs would eventually join the SLPP. This is a setback to the SLFP and in turn Sirisena himself, weakening both. SLPP alleges SLFP’s policies were not pursued by Sirisena in the coalition government with the Wickremesinghe-led UNP. The SLPP had won a landslide victory in local polls in February with Rajapaksa’s backing. In 2014, Sirisena had defected from the then Rajapaksa-led SLFP to join an opposition coalition that ousted Rajapaksa. Later, Sirisena rejoined the SLFP, took over its leadership and formed a national government with Wickremesinghe’s party. Now Rajapaksa’s move to split from SLFP appears paying back Sirisena similarly.

There was dissent between Sirisena favouring Chinese investments and Wickremesinghe favouring Indian but that alone was no reason for the drastic action by Sirisena of sacking PM Ranil Wickremsinghe. Significantly this action was just 47 days after the shock defeat of China-favourite President Abdulla Yameen of Maldives on September 23. Srisina’s action appears ‘soft coup’ by China; missive to install Rajapaksa as Prime Minister come what may,  Rajapaksa being established China-stooge. China has already debt-trapped Sri Lanka by securing a 99-year lease of the Hambantota Port that fits into China’s strategic designs with respect to the India Ocean, including her Belt and Road Initiative. Faulting on payments, Sri Lanka has been offering territory in lieu to China. In July 2018, China offered Sri Lanka a fresh grant of 2 billion Yuan ($295 million) to expand its dominance in Sri Lanka.

Unceremonious removal of Wickremesinghe was termed ‘unconstitutional’ by majority Parliamentarians and rejected by Wickremesinghe himself but can Supreme Court staying dissolution of Parliament be construed that  Wickremesinghe is the Prime Minister? This is unlikely to be accepted by Sirisena unless the Supreme Court rams it down his throat because annulling appointment of Rajapaksa as Prime Minister could lead to calls for impeachment of Sirisena. But this may take a legal battle debating constitutionality of Sirisena sacking a Prime Minister and installing his own favourite. Sirisena is weakened bowing to Chinese desire to install Rajapaksa as Prime Minister and  Rajapaksa abandoning the SLFP.

While Sirisena has assured the public that there will be no interference in ongoing probes against Rajapaksa for human rights violations and corruption, that the police and law are free from any pressure, he has just unleashed his trump card against Ranil Wicremsinghe; saying a presidential commission will be appointed to inquire into the fraud in Central Bank as well as other acts of fraud and corruption that occurred during the period when Wickremsinghe was Prime Minister, which will reveal more issues.

China would be happy with the Sirisena-Rajapaksa duo ruing Sri Lanka but with dissolution of Parliament stayed, China would work on other options; merger of SLPP and SLFP or at least both these political parties supporting each other. Given the chameleonic political career of Sirisena, possibility of him defecting to SLPP cannot be ruled out either. In this entire political skullduggery, money will play a major role, and Beijing will keep its coffers wide open. Meanwhile, Wickremesinghe’s UNP is also exploring fresh alignments. All three Sirisena, Rajapaksa and Wickremesinghe would likely be contenders in the next Presidential scheduled in 2020.

Given China’s strategic aims in the IOR, Sri Lanka is fast emerging as another ‘Great Game’ of China albeit sans violence like in Afghanistan. The political permutations and combination are endless. How the other players in this ‘Great Game’ respond will be crucial to limit Xi Jinping’s ambitions. India most certainly should not be sitting on the fence.

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The views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily represent the opinions or policies of the Indian Defence Review.

About the Author

Lt Gen Prakash Katoch

is a former Lt Gen Special Forces, Indian Army

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