The small hotel owner where I stayed was most upset. His newly built hotel stands empty with just two rooms occupied by foreign tourists. He said he has lost 17 bookings by foreign tourists for the next two months that would have assured him an income whereby he could repay the interest on the loans he has taken. The bookings had been cancelled during the peak tourist season on account of the political crisis in the country. It was very unfortunate that just as Sri Lanka made to the Number 1 spot in the world for tourism according to the Lonely Planet guide, that political actions should have caused a crisis that has brought Sri Lanka’s economy to a virtual standstill. When I returned to Colombo, I met a group of small and medium businessmen. One of them is from Maharagama, which is seen as a stronghold of Sinhala nationalism. He bemoaned the political crisis and said it as dealing a severe blow to his business. When there is a crisis, people prefer to save their money and not spend it. He said he might as well put up his shutters, to quote his own words.
The president has come under pressure both from within the country and internationally to immediately end the suspension of parliamentary sittings that alone could determine which side enjoys the majority support in parliament. This would be the democratic and ethical course of action to follow. The irony is that democracy and ethics are now subject to negotiations. Conflict resolution theory states that the possibility of a negotiated settlement arises when there is a mutually hurting stalemate. At the moment it seems that this point has not yet been reached. President Maithripala Sirisena has announced that parliament will be reconvened on November 14, two days prior to the date he originally set.
President Sirisena precipitated the crisis by sacking Prime Minister Ranil Wickemesinghe at a time he undoubtedly held majority support in parliament. But with the sacking of the prime minister and suspension of parliament in its eleventh day, this majority is in question. The general public is witness to the spectacle of little known MPs crossing over and being awarded with ministerial posts. It is generally believed that the prorogation is for the purpose of giving extra time before parliament meets again so that horse trading in MPs can take place. It is reported that the going price is Rs 500 million or more than USD 2 million as alleged by UNP MP Ranga Bandara who was one of those targeted for crossover.
The political crisis is being discussed everywhere, in the buses, in the trains, in offices and even in places of religious worship where people speak of the political doom that is to come. But parliament, the highest political assembly of the land, continues to remain closed until November 14. This may be legal, but it is not legitimate. The president’s side argues that when the president’s party pulled out of the government coalition the government itself was no more. This gave the president the right to appoint a new prime minister and cabinet. They also argue that as the president appoints the prime minister, he has the power to dismiss. There is a counter to both these arguments. The first is that even if the coalition dissolved, the government remained. There remained a prime minister and cabinet who could prove their majority in parliament. Second, that the constitution itself sets out three specific circumstances under which a prime minister can be removed, and this leaves no discretion to the president.
The court of public opinion is divided on these two positions. But even if the president was within his powers in removing Ranil Wickremesinghe as prime minister, his position became untenable when he appointed former president Mahinda Rajapaksa as prime minister, at his discretion, and without reference to parliament and to the majority opinion within parliament. Former Vice Chancellor of the University of Colombo, and Professor of Law, Emeritus, Savitri Gunasekere has written, “The president fails to fulfil his constitutional duties when he seeks to govern with those he appoints at his discretion as prime minister and cabinet ministers without going to parliament and identifying the lawful government and prime minister who will assume responsibilities of government.”
In these circumstances, it is understandable if the sense of betrayal amongst those who once supported the president’s election campaign is immense. In 2015, presidential candidate Sirisena presented himself as the candidate for good governance, human rights and basic decency in political life. He appeared to believe in those values and practice them. To his credit he accepted most of the reforms that are needed to make post war healing and inter-ethnic reconciliation in Sri Lanka a living possibility, albeit it slower than hoped for. He accepted the singing of the national anthem in both languages, which his predecessor refused to do and even seemed to make illegal. He renamed the day that the war ended a day of remembrance rather than a day of victory.
It should be noted that the president did not ask the MPs belonging to his party in parliament to obstruct the passage of the reconciliation mechanisms that the government passed into law, namely the Office of Missing Persons and the Office for Reparations. The president also promised the return of all land taken over from civilians during the war by the end of this year and under his presidency more than 80 percent of civilian land has in fact been returned. These are all significant achievements of the government over the past three years that would not have been possible without the president’s cooperation.
The qualities that made him accept such changes must still be alive in him, and not dead, even as the poet said, “Be noble, and the nobleness that lies in other men, sleeping but never dead will rise in majesty to meet thine own.” It must be the case that President Sirisena is hurting. He must be hurt to see those who once supported him now publicly demonstrating against him. The shutting down of parliament is within the president’s powers, but it is neither democratic nor moral to keep it shut for so long when so much is at stake. The date for the prorogation of parliament to be lifted is much too delayed. In the meantime, the shameless spectacle of money and cabinet positions being offered for the votes of MPs will continue. The higher self of the president needs to be reached sooner rather than later.