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Regime-change in Sri Lanka

Change that fuels fears

Print edition : Nov 23, 2018 T+T-
Sri Lanka’s ousted Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe (third from left) waves to his supporters during a protest against his removal, near his official residence in Colombo on October 30.

Sri Lanka’s ousted Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe (third from left) waves to his supporters during a protest against his removal, near his official residence in Colombo on October 30.

Sri Lanka has entered a hugely uncertain phase of its post-civil war politics in which the disillusionment of young voters can result in their radical alienation from politicians, political institutions and democratic processes.

SRI LANKA saw a partial and sudden regime change in the evening of October 26. It stunned everyone except a handful, who had gathered at the office of President Maithripala Sirisena that evening on invitation.

At the core of the change was the dismissal of Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe and the appointment of the former President Mahinda Rajapaksa as the new Prime Minister. This change also saw a major re-configuration of the forces and allies that constituted the ruling coalition. The United National Party (UNP), the main partner of the so-called unity government since January 2015, was thrown out with no prior warning. Simultaneously, the so-called joint opposition, led by Rajapaksa, entered the government as the new coalition partner in the Sirisena-led United People’s Freedom Alliance (UPFA).

The sudden and shocking turn of events generated more fears than hopes among many sections of Sri Lankans. Foremost among these was that people in Sri Lanka were not accustomed to the way it happened and its symbolism. Carrying out a de facto regime change by sacking the Prime Minister and his Cabinet without consulting Parliament and telling the people were things that people thought could have happened only in the past or in some other country. Far more surprising was President Sirisena’s appointment of his sworn political enemy, Rajapaksa, as the new Prime Minister. All this looked like a prelude to an imminent power struggle that might go out of control.

The second shocking element was the possibility of the reversal of the democratisation process that began three years ago. It carried the risk of a new phase of political instability arising out of a sudden political shock and, in turn, opening a short cut for authoritarian politics and governance to return, assuming a harsher form than previously known in Sri Lanka.

Uneasy Calm

After several days of high political drama, Sri Lanka seems to be entering a phase of uneasy calm. The acts of defiance by the UNP and Wickremesinghe, by continuing to occupy the Prime Minister’s official residence and showing the popular support they still command by organising a well-attended protest rally in Colombo, have not met with any confrontational response from the government. Instead, Sirisena and his new allies seem to be busy collecting MPs from the UNP and its minor allies in order to achieve a parliamentary majority of 113+ MPs. They made a few gains, until the time of this writing, by offering four UNP MPs ministerial positions.

Both camps appear to be preparing for a showdown in Parliament when it is reconvened on November 16. Wickremesinghe and the UNP continue to claim that they have the majority in Parliament. Demonstration of this fact is vital for the UNP to sustain its claim that Sirisena’s act of removing Wickremesinghe from office was unconstitutional and illegal. In fact, there is doubt over the constitutionality of the sacking of the Prime Minister by the President. Provisions of Sri Lanka’s Constitution after the 19th Amendment was introduced in 2015 safeguard the office of the Prime Minister from arbitrary dismissal by the President.

Besides, just a few months ago, Wickremesinghe had successfully defeated a no-confidence motion against him, to which Sirisena had extended his not-so-tacit support. By October 26, when he was sacked, Wickremesinghe was not in violation of any of the constitutional requirements for the office of the Prime Minister. The constitutional validity of Rajapaksa’s appointment as Prime Minister, too, is in doubt.

Thus, what happened on October 26 left Sirisena open to the charge of acting in disregard of the provisions, principles and values of the country’s Constitution and the principles of democracy. He became Sri Lanka’s President in January 2015 precisely to restore, safeguard and uphold these norms and practices. His radical turnabout was a shock to all those who took grave risks to bring him to power.

It is against this backdrop that Wickremesinghe insisted that Parliament be summoned and he be given a chance to to prove his majority. Wickremesinghe’s stand is that only Parliament should adjudicate this constitutional dispute. He has ruled out the option of seeking a judicial remedy in the Supreme Court, saying that Parliament has “supreme judicial powers” in this particular case.

Wickremesinghe believes that once Parliament is summoned he can prove that: (a) he is still the constitutionally legitimate Prime Minister of Sri Lanka; and (b) the President acted unconstitutionally by sacking him and swearing in a replacement for him. If that happens, there will be some significant political consequences. Will Sirisena, Rajapaksa and their troops accept a major political defeat that will have serious consequences for their political careers? Will they not pursue all the options available to secure the necessary majority when Parliament reconvenes? Will they treat the grip over state power casually, as their opponent has done all too often?

They have already begun the parliamentary game, usually played under similar circumstances, of poaching the UNP camp for MPs. Muslim and Tamil MPs of the smaller parties will be the next target. Cabinet and non-Cabinet ministerial positions are being kept vacant for the new invitees from the Wickremesinghe camp. Rajapaksa is a politician with a proven record in such power games.

That seems to be, ironically, the most peaceful and low-cost path to resolving the current political impasse. Democracy and corruption are so intertwined that in times of political crisis, corruption emerges as an effective and persuasive arbiter.

Personal is political

Meanwhile, two major questions need answers. The first is, why did Sirisena engineer this unusual political move of sacking his Prime Minister and strike a new political partnership with his erstwhile foe? He has already provided some answers. They are both political and personal or, more correctly, political-personal.

The breakdown of the relationship, personal and political, between Sirisena and Wickremesinghe has, in fact, paralysed the government for more than a year. One feature of the coalition of good governance, formed in January 2015, is the premature death of the idealism that brought these two leaders, a host of opposition parties and civil society groups together in a broad new political coalition. The first six months of the new regime went fairly well and saw the launch of a wide-ranging set of initiatives for constitutional reform, peace and reconciliation, ethnic peace, corruption-free governance, restoration of human rights, political freedoms and democratic openness. The regime commanded massive international support and solidarity too.

A few policy and political issues seem to have posed a challenge, leading to the slowing down of the government’s progress in the matter of reforms. The reform agenda of the coalition had generated a lot of hope among the people, but the understanding, political will, human as well as material capacity, and the preparedness of the two leaders and their colleagues were totally inadequate to carry it out. The challenge to governance reform came from the non-cooperating, lethargic and corruption-prone bureaucracy.

To complicate matters, when Sirisena assumed leadership of the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP), he brought some of its key members to the new government and Cabinet to ensure the two-thirds majority the ruling alliance needs in Parliament to carry forward constitutional and other reforms. While these members provided the necessary parliamentary majority for the President and the Prime Minister, they also had dual and conflicting political loyalties to the government and their erstwhile leader, Rajapaksa. Some of them also became the target of corruption investigations initiated by the new government through the newly formed Financial Crimes Investigation Division (FCID) of the police. The investigations into the SLFP Ministers provided the initial tension between the President and the Prime Minister.

The question of corruption also created a major rift between the President and the Prime Minister in the second year of the unity government. This is a theme that requires greater attention and reflection through comparative inquiry in fragile democracies that seek to rid their governance and government of corruption, personality cult and abuse of political power.

Financial scam

The event that shook Sri Lanka and the foundations of the coalition that called itself a government of good governance was the massive corruption involving the Central Bank’s auctioning of bonds. Towards the end of 2015, a story broke that the son-in-law of the Governor of the Central Bank had made illegal profits of nearly LKR 10 billion within a space of a few days. The Governor was a political appointee with close political links with the UNP and personal links with the Prime Minister. The opposition claimed that UNP politicians were directly involved in the scam and that the Prime Minister and his Finance Minister knew about it and covered it up. Amidst public pressure, Sirisena appointed a commission of inquiry. Although the commission did not blame the Prime Minister for any involvement in the scam, the public perception, a perception shared by Sirisena, was that the Prime Minister knew about it, covered it up, and the UNP benefited from it financially. Sirisena did mention this in a recent explanation of why he sacked Wickremesinghe.

Removing corruption from politics and governance is easier said than done in an age when predatory capital has penetrated the core of public institutions, party machinery and the personnel and practices of electoral and parliamentary politics. An uncomfortable lesson from this part of the Sri Lankan story is that idealist reform coalitions that come to power dislodging corrupt and authoritarian regimes run a dual risk. They become more fragile than the ones they replace, and unless quickly dismantled by near-revolutionary policy measures, the old structures will return with renewed vigour and energy, and in new disguises. Both Sirisena and Wickremesinghe became unconscious agents of this return.

Policy clashes

There have also been some serious policy differences between the UNP and the UPFA-SLFP coalition partners in a number of areas. Wickremesinghe is a committed and articulate spokesperson for the virtues of neoliberalism and its ideology. His economic policy has always been guided entirely by the neoliberal orthodoxy of the 1990s. He also assumed the position of supreme economic policymaker and economic manager of the government. Managing a debt-trapped economy through more borrowing and neoliberal market reforms had its own economic, social and political costs, which Wickremesinghe stubbornly refused to acknowledge. This angered Sirisena and the UPFA component of the coalition, whose economic ideology came from the SLFP’s traditional social democratic ideology. It is no surprise that Sirisena cited the sharp economic policy differences with Wickremesinghe as another justification for sacking him.

The other area of clash in policy matters between the two sides was on constitutional reform, reconciliation, peace-building and transitional justice. All these were a part of the package of promises made jointly by both sides during the January 2015 election campaign. The Geneva Resolution of September 2015 on “Promoting Accountability, Reconciliation and Human Rights in Sri Lanka”, co-sponsored by the United States and Sri Lankan governments, marked a clear departure from the hard line, anti-Western and Sinhalese nationalist policies of the Rajapaksa presidency.

Although the government immediately began to implement the Geneva commitments and political commitments to the Sri Lankan electorate, the President soon realised that any reform on these fronts were much more complex and difficult than he had realised. On the question of constitutional reform aimed at abolishing the presidential system, he found that garnering a two-thirds majority in Parliament was not easy. There was no consensus across political parties about the scope of constitutional reform and whether the presidential system should be abolished to return to the old Westminster model.

President Sirisena himself was under pressure from his new SLFP allies not to agree to the UNP proposal to abolish the presidential system. The ultimate compromise was the 19th Amendment, which created a watered-down version of the semi-presidential system, with a dual executive and stronger Westminsterial features. Sirisena’s action of sacking the Prime Minister and reconstituting the composition of the coalition in a constitutionally dubious manner suggests that he now wants to reverse the 19th Amendment and bring the old presidential model through the back door in a de facto frame of constitutional practice.

Enhanced devolution, in order to address the Tamil people’s demands for a political solution to the ethnic question, suffered a similar fate, with no breakthrough on the political deadlock for want of a consensus between the two main coalition partners. Even when the Tamil National Alliance (TNA) leadership went to the extent of indicating its willingness to negotiate only minor improvements in the 13th Amendment, the Sirisena faction of the coalition government was suspicious of the TNA’s motives. President Sirisena’s words of goodwill alone could hardly please the minorities in the absence of tangible deeds. Wickremesinghe, the more intellectual of the two on matters of constitutional reform, peace-building, and reconciliation and democracy, refused, in his own lackadaisical manner, to champion the government’s core promise and guide the President along the correct path of political and social reconstruction.

On the question of reconciliation and transitional justice, the President’s branch of the government seemed to have come under tremendous pressure from Sinhalese nationalist forces, ex-military officer groups, the military and civilian bureaucracy and his own SLFP. The Sri Lankan Foreign Minister’s annual speeches at the United Nations Human Rights Council in Geneva turned out to be long litanies of excuses why the government had not been able to implement its pledges fully and within the agreed time frame. It is on this issue that both Sirisena and Wickremesinghe lost the political trust of the minorities. Even with these failures, both leaders were treated with respect by the international community, as democrats who had been working against great odds. World leaders even treated President Sirisena, known for his gentle manners, with great esteem and even as a rare personification of peace, democracy and tolerance. It is difficult to imagine how that positive world image can now survive the shock of October 26.

What is still puzzling is the question why both leaders continued to disregard the friendly advice and early warnings given to them by civil society groups and later the electorate to acknowledge their mistakes, strengthen the coalition, and forge a better framework of cooperation for the coalition to fulfil its popular mandate. There may be many explanations to this inconvenient question. If one were to be a little philosophical, one could make two points: (a) democratic governance in a post-authoritarian, post-civil war, fragile democracy is infinitely more difficult than in a stable democracy; (b) combining neoliberal economic reforms with liberal political reforms invites only unmanageable political risks.

Enigma of Rajapaksa

Quite intriguing is the question why Rajapaksa teamed up with President Sirisena for this act of dubious constitutional validity without waiting for the presidential and parliamentary elections of 2019 and 2020. Or could he not have engineered a hostile parliamentary vote, within constitutional limits, to defeat the Wickremesinghe government’s Budget in mid November? It is true that he cannot contest the next presidential election because of the limitations imposed by the 19th Amendment. Yet, could he not have fielded one of his brothers or a pliable lieutenant in the presidential election in 2019 and then become the all-powerful Prime Minister in 2020 in real Putin style? Is this the beginning of an incredibly long second coming, a la Vladimir Putin? Only events in the coming weeks will give credible answers to these crucial questions.

Meanwhile, the three-cornered power struggle that suddenly erupted in the open on October 26 is far from over. It has the potential to take new and unpredictable twists and turns. We can expect some short-term surprises:

If Rajapaksa consolidates his position within the government, he might be doing it at the risk of arousing the ire of President Sirisena, who has just redrawn the boundaries between him and the Prime Minister in a manner that will not please Prime Minister Rajapaksa. As for Wickremesinghe, if his ouster is confirmed through parliamentary process, he might find it difficult to survive this time around as the UNP leader. The UNP members might be inclined to think that if Sajith Premadasa were made the party’s presidential candidate in 2019, the UNP’s chances of coming back to power, with the support of the minority parties, would not be unrealistic.

Wickremesinghe’s ouster and the defiance shown by the UNP’s leadership have also re-energised the rank and file of the party. For Sirisena to secure his political future, he will have to work out a sustainable arrangement of sharing power with the Rajapaksa family. And it will be a formidable task for him and his advisers. He will also find his domestic and international image as a moderate political leader with democratic credentials and a selfless attachment to a larger vision of public good irreparably damaged.

Finally, Sri Lanka has entered a hugely uncertain phase of its post-civil war politics. The incomplete projects of democratic political reform, peace-building, ethnic equality and reconciliation, political openness and tolerance and human rights run the risk of either remaining incomplete or being abandoned. If the utter political disillusionment of the new generation of Sri Lankan voters, regularly expressed on social media with both bravery and cynicism, is an indication, Sri Lanka will see another phase of radical alienation of the youth from politicians, political institutions, and the easily abused democratic processes.

Jayadeva Uyangoda is Emeritus Professor of Political Science, University of Colombo, Sri Lanka.