The country being on the verge of imminent division due to envisaged constitutional reform was one of the main justifications of the backdoor seizure of power of October 26 by members of the hitherto opposition who are now members of the government. The threat they alleged came from the constitutional reform process. This is a process that has been continuing since the former government got elected in 2015, though it is now at a standstill due the political crisis. The key elements of this constitutional reform process, which was envisaged to culminate in a new constitution, have been to change the executive presidential system, obtain a new electoral system to replace the current one which is based on proportional representation, and to ensure a more effective devolution of power as a solution to the grievances of the ethnic minorities in general and to the Tamil people in particular.
In the aftermath of the Supreme Court decision to issue a stay order on the president’s dissolution of parliament, the constitutional are nearer to being resolved. The reconvening of parliament after the stay order has seen the newly appointed government repeatedly defeated in votes in parliament. Two no-confidence motions against Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa have been passed and two motions to halt the allocation of funds to government ministries have also been passed. The government’s inability to muster sufficient numbers in parliament to outvote the opposition has led to the unprecedented situation, at least in Sri Lanka, of the government itself boycotting parliament.
In a constitutional democracy, the constitution is the supreme law and governance cannot be on the basis of personal prejudices or the whims and fancies of individuals. The purpose of the constitution is to take political decision making out of that personal realm to give stability and predictability to government. It is now a month since the Black Friday of October 26 when the Sri Lankan polity was plunged into a constitutional and political crisis by President Maithripala Sirisena when he decided he had no option but to sack Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe and his government, and just as arbitrarily to replace him with former president Mahinda Rajapaksa from the ranks of the opposition.
The political crisis that erupted unexpectedly on October 26 still continues and is now entering its fourth week. President Maithripala Sirisena’s unexpected decision to replace Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe with former President Mahinda Rajapaksa unleashed the problem on an unsuspecting country. The problem is that the former president has been unable to show he has the support of the majority in parliament to legitimately take his new position as prime minister. On two occasions in the past fortnight 122 MPs out of 225 have voted and signed documents of no-confidence in the newly appointed prime minister. On both occasions the President has refused to act citing procedural issues. The entire country is looking to see the deadlock end soon. Unless resolved soon the damage to the country will grow.
Several political parties and civic groups are to file appeals to the Supreme Court against the dissolution of parliament by President Maithripala Sirisena. Their common position is likely to be that the president has acted in violation of the 19th Amendment to the constitution. This amendment meant to restrict presidential power was passed virtually unanimously by parliament with only one dissenting vote in April 2015 shortly after the change of government that was occasioned by President Sirisena’s victory at the presidential elections earlier that year. At that time, and subsequently on innumerable occasions, the president referred to the unprecedented sacrifice he has made in curbing the powers of the presidency through the 19th Amendment. The president also received praise locally and internationally for his statesmanlike attitude towards power.
Even as the political crisis continues to drag on the cost to the country is immense. This past weekend I was in Deniyaya to meet with civil society activists for an activity that had been arranged prior to the political crisis. This was to create awareness in the rural areas about the mechanisms that the government set up during the past three years to enable people to protect their human rights. These are some of the fruits of the reconciliation process of the past three years since the Government of National Unity came into being. These include the mechanisms of the Right to Information Commission, the revamped Human Rights Commission and the Office of Missing Persons.
The dismissal of Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe following the withdrawal of the SLFP headed by President Maithripala Sirisena from the government alliance has become yet another source of instability within the polity. It has also caused international ripples with the governments of many countries publicly expressing their concerns and the UK issuing a travel advisory to its citizens to be careful when traveling to Sri Lanka in the near future. Therefore the sooner this crisis is resolved the better it will be for the country. It is to be hoped that all parties concerned will act with restraint. The desire to corner the other and utterly defeat it can be a cause for further instability that outlives the present crisis.
For reconciliation to become a reality in Sri Lanka, no section of society should feel it is being marginalized or ignored. In a recognition of the need for all of society to be engaged, the Office of Missing Persons (OMP) is about to commence a campaign to generate empathy for victims. The value of public processes in giving a place to those whose sorrows have been long ignored to speak their truth was seen at the public consultation organized by the OMP in Colombo last week. This consultation was meant for people from the Western Province. The problem of missing persons is not limited to the North and East nor to the Tamil people. In the past three months since it was constituted, and commissioners appointed, the OMP has been holding consultations in different parts of the country.
Limping and internally conflicted thought it be, the government of national unity once again showed its value when it got the Office for Reparations bill passed through parliament. The margin of victory was narrow with just 59 MPs voting in favour and 43 against it. As both UNP and SLFP members of the government voted for the passage of the bill it can be believed that both President Maithripala Sirisena and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe were in favour of the passage of the bill. They were joined by the TNA which also voted in favour of the bill. However, the voting figures show that most of the government MPs kept away from the vote. This was a shirking of their responsibility to take a stand on an issue of greatest importance to the national reconciliation process.
Soon after his return from New York where he addressed the UN General Assembly, President Maithripala Sirisena ordered the return of all land in the Northern and Eastern provinces that are owned by the people of those areas. He issued these instructions during a meeting of the Presidential Task Force overlooking the development of the Northern and Eastern provinces. The President has instructed the Presidential Task Force to plan out a time frame and a proper structure in order to implement the project and to present its progress at the next meeting. This is in keeping with the letter and spirit of UN Human Rights Council Resolution 30/1 of October 2015. When the president announced that he would go to New York and propose a new course of action before the UN, it was assumed that he might be taking a contrary course of action. Many nationalists hoped that he might announce that Sri Lanka would withdraw its assent to that resolution that immediately became a political matter of much contestation within the country.