Two months ago, the country of Sri Lanka seemed to be the picture of a flourishing democracy, at least to the outside world. But overnight (literally over the night of 26th October 2018), it became politically unstable, socially tense and economically weak. The country’s leadership was in complete disarray – it had two Prime Ministers and no stable Parliament – which put a strain on the entire executive branch of the government. Parliamentarians were actually getting into fist fights and began hurling furniture at each other instead of discussing important policy matters like peacebuilding, democratization and state reform, all pressing matter in their agenda at the time.
This political crisis triggered an economic crisis. Sri Lanka had a failing currency and investors were pulling out of deals due to the political uncertainty. The worst part? The people were panicking! Having just seen the end of a 25-year Civil War in 2009, their biggest fear was that they’ll once again be subject to war crimes, human rights violations and constant violence if this situation escalates.
The Sri Lankan political crisis revolved around three personalities fighting for power: President Maithripala Sirisena, former President Mahinda Rajapaksa and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe. And once you understand where these three stand on the Sri Lankan political spectrum, you’ll understand that this political crisis, like any other, comes down to the fundamental ideological differences between them.
Player #1: President Maithripala Sirisena
To understand what’s going on now, we first have to go back to 2015, when Sri Lanka held its last General Elections. At the time, the primary aim of all the opposition parties was to oust the incumbent President Mahinda Rajapaksa of the Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna Party. To achieve this, 2 parties that have traditionally opposing ideologies – the Sri Lanka Freedom Party and the United National Party – led by Maithripala Sirisena and Ranil Wickremesinghe, respectively, came together to have majority control of the Parliament and form a government.
Once this alliance was in power, they came up with a way to share the responsibilities. Sirisena was appointed President and Wickremesinghe became Prime Minister, ousting former President Rajapaksa. Naturally, their first order of business was to undo all the ‘damage’ Rajapaksa had done. They immediately reformed Rajapaksa’s authoritarian government – starting with 19th amendment. The main purpose of the amendment was to repeal the 18th Amendment which gave the President extreme powers. This gave equal power to the President and the Prime Minister, as opposed to the President having majority powers previously in the Sri Lanka political structure. One of the main features of the Amendment was that the President was no longer allowed to dissolve the Parliament until 4.5 years after the election unless ⅔ of the Parliament requests it happen sooner.
However, the ideological differences between them that had been suppressed in order to win the election eventually began to resurface and the peace between them gradually fell apart.
On the surface, they had many differences in cultural and economic policy matters. By pursuing post-civil war justice for the minority Tamilians in Sri Lanka, Sirisena felt that Wickremesinghe was alienating the majority Sinhalese Buddhist population of the country. Plus, by handing over control of Sri Lankan port to a private Chinese company, Sirisena accused Wickremesinghe of privatizing national assets. The last straw for Sirisena was when news of an alleged assassination attempt against him emerged, alleging that the attempt was plotted by the Prime Minister and his Cabinet colleague.
So, three years after the elections that brought them to power, on the 26th of October, 2018, Sirisena sacked Prime Minister Wickremesinghe, and appointed former autocratic President Rajapaksa as the new Prime Minister. And after a hasty swearing-in ceremony, Rajapaksa was appointed the new Prime Minister of Sri Lanka by President Sirisena. When some members of the Parliament opposed this decision, he proceeded to dissolve the Parliament as well, calling for new general elections on 5th January 2019.
This resulted in Sri Lanka having two Prime Ministers, one President, and no Parliament.
Player #2: Ranil Wickremesinghe
So while all of this was going on on Sirisena’s side of the story, incumbent Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe was presenting his own case. He defended his move to pursue post-civil war justice for the minority Tamilians by citing the 2012 United Nations Human Rights Council resolution for “promoting reconciliation, accountability and human rights” in Sri Lanka. He said that the deal with the Chinese company was necessary to ensure that Sri Lanka did not default on their mounting financial debt to China. Plus, he adamantly denied being part of any assassination plot against President Sirisena.
Even after he was officially sacked on the 26th of October, he refused to leave office, calling his sacking an unconstitutional move. He cited Sri Lanka’s 19th Amendment, the one that Sirisena himself had passed, which put the President and PM at equal standing and that prevented the President from dissolving the Parliament until 4.5 years after the election unless ⅔ of the Parliament requests it happen sooner.
He repeatedly called to reconvene the Parliament so that he could prove his majority support among the country’s lawmakers. But since Sirisena had ‘unconstitutionally’ dissolved the Parliament, even this seemed hard to achieve.
Finally, the Supreme Court of Sri Lanka stepped in on 12th November and allowed the Parliament to reconvene the next day. The Parliament, as Wickremesinghe had predicted, passed a no-confidence vote against Rajapaksa as the Prime Minister, thereby reinstating Wickremesinghe to his office. However, Rajapaksa, Sirisena and their respective supporters came to blows in the Parliament, refusing to allow its regular functioning or acknowledging Wickremesinghe’s victory.
A second no-confidence motion was passed against Rajapaksa as the new Prime Minister- but it had no effect as Rajapaksa stayed in office, with the President backing him.
Finally, the Supreme Court stepped in again on 13th December and a full seven-judge bench unanimously ruled on that the President could not dissolve Parliament until it completes a four-and-a-half year term. The court also said the President’s decision to call snap elections was illegal.
Following this ruling Mahinda Rajapaksa signed a letter of resignation as Prime Minister on 15th December. He stated he has no intention of remaining as prime minister without a general election and does not wish to hamper the president forming a new government. it was announced that Wickremesinghe would be reinstated as Prime Minister the next day.
Player #3: Mahinda Rajapaksa
This brings us to the 3rd player in this political game – Mahinda Rajapaksa. Why was President Sirisena so ready to risk his presidency to overthrow Wickremesinghe and instate Rajapaksa as PM? And why were some of the MPs so against Rajapaksa’s Prime Ministership?
To answer the first question – Sirisena won the 2015 presidential election on the strength of the votes of the minorities – Tamils, Muslims and Malayaha Tamils. He lost the majority Sinhalese Buddhist vote to Rajapaksa. That means that technically, he could not recognized as the leader of the country’s majority community. Meanwhile, polls were showing that during Sirisena’s tenure, Rajapaksa’s popularity was growing and he could apparently even win the next general elections.
In order to stay in power, Sirisena would have to cut ties with Wickremesinghe – someone he didn’t politically agree with anyway – and forge bonds with Rajapaksa – whose government he had worked for back when Rajapaksa was President.
But the second question – Why was there such fierce opposition to Rajapaksa coming back into power? – has a far more chilling answer.
Mahinda Rajapaksa served as Sri Lanka’s President for 10 years, starting 2005. He had seen the end of the Sri Lanka Civil War that had lasted for 25 years.
Rajapaksa’s government had seen an increasingly authoritarian regime – favoring his friends and family for government offices, ordering war crimes against Sri Lanka’s Tamil population and diminishing human rights in the country.
If Rajapaksa were to come back into power, the country may have been pushed back in time to a more authoritarian regime rather than a democratic one. People were worried about having negligible human rights, and an increasingly autocratic rule, especially now that the Prime Minister has equal powers as the President.
With anti-incumbency becoming a political and electoral trend around the world, it is not unusual for political rivals to join hands only to overthrow the current government. This might be something we see in India soon, during the 2019 Lok Sabha election as traditional rivals like the Congress and Mayawati’s Bahujan Samaj Party or Akhilesh Yadav’s Samajwadi Party come together in an attempt to oust PM Modi. However, it is important to consider what happens after the election too. In Jammu and Kashmir, the PDP and the BJP came together to end the rule of the National Conference, but eventually, that alliance too fell apart due to ideological differences, pushing the state into political turmoil.
For now, Sri Lanka seems to have solved its problem, and all is well again. Read our article about how this political crisis had an impact of South Asia’s diplomatic equation here.