Sri Lanka’s parliamentary crisis and Western ‘concern’ for democracy

Sri Lanka’s legislature has been in disarray since 26th Oct. when President Maithripala Sirisena sacked his prime minister Ranil Wickremesinghe, replacing him with his one-time opponent and former president Mahinda Rajapaksa. The president’s United Peoples’ Freedom Alliance (UPFA) coalitionand Wickremesinghe’s United National Party (UNP) hadformed a National Unity Government after the 2015 presidential election in which no group won a clear majority. While the fault lines were there from the beginning – with Wickremesinghe’s UNP pushing Western-friendly neo-liberal policies and Sirisena’s centre-left coalition taking a more nationalist line – three and a half years down the line the tensions have erupted into open hostility, with the UPFA quitting the Unity Government. The president dissolved parliament on 9th Nov. to call an early January election which his party looked set to win, given Rajapaksa’s popularity. The dissolution order was challenged in the Supreme Court, which is yet to give its ruling.  In the meantime, parliament which reconvened has been in turmoil with each group claiming a majority, despite lack of clarity on the actual numbers.Lasanda Kurukulasuriyareports on aspects of the impasse.

Although recent developments have made it near-impossible to anticipate the changing political landscape from one day to the next,there are some aspects of Sri Lanka’s ongoing parliamentary/ constitutional sagathat have come into sharp focus.One is the unusual ‘concern’ shown by the West in what is a purely internal issue for Sri Lanka. Another is the extraordinary trajectory of the Speaker’s behavior since the onset of the crisis.

Following the Supreme Court stay order on dissolution that paved the way for reconvening of parliament, there took place on Wednesday, Thursday and Friday some of the most disgraceful scenes ever witnessed in the legislature. MPs verbally and physically attacked each other and vandalized the Chamber, causing early adjournment. Earlier, it was common knowledge that the worst kind of horse-trading took place behind the scenes with MPs putting themselves up for auction at prices reportedly ranging from Rs.50 million to 500 million. It was a race between the new government and the old, to ratchet up numbers and show a majority in the House. On Wednesday, in a move that seemed to have been scripted in advance,aNo Confidence Motion (NCM) against the government was proposed, seconded and purportedly ‘passed,’ at record speed. This was done in a dubious mannerand surely in violation of Standing Orders because an NCM was not on the Order Paper. It would anyway have required five days’ notice and a debate.Taking everyone by surprise, the Speaker hurriedly declared,amidst an incoherent cacophony of voices, that the ‘voice vote’ was in favour.In a further surprise on Thursday he enacted a similar drama amid hurled waste paper baskets and other flying objects.

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During these events Western envoyswere in the visitors’gallery,reportedlyat the Speaker’s invitation. Notwithstanding Wednesday’s raucous parliament session, the US ambassador made a deadpan statement in a tweet that day saying she was ‘glad’ that parliament was ‘once again fulfilling its constitutional role.’ One is left to wonder by what stretch of the imagination the mayhem witnessed that day could have conformed with the ambassador’s idea of ‘parliament fulfilling its role.’There was nothing to applaud in these ignominious events. Could the ambassador have been so naïve as to believe the claims of feckless cross-over MPs that they were ‘following their democratic conscience’ etc.?

What becomes apparent in this dispute between political factions supporting, respectively, the ousted PM and the new one, is that these Western powers are taking sides. This type of internal political impasse is not unique to Sri Lanka. But it would seem that in Sri Lanka’s case, alarm over possible geopolitical consequences of Ranil Wickremesinghe – a pro-western prime minister, being replaced Mahinda Rajapaksa, who is seen to be pro-China – has set off unprecedented reactions.

“Why is Sri Lanka the focus of all this interest?” asked DrPalithaKohona,Sri Lanka’s former Permanent Representative to the UN in New York. “There must be something more to it than the need to protect democracy”he said, addressing an ‘Eliya’ briefing on Tuesday.

“At an international level, I find that the current spate of interventions in our domestic affairs is ungainly and unacceptable. It is not consistent with contemporary diplomatic practice. One might even argue that it is illegal under international law” he asserted. Kohona, one-time head of the UN Treaty Section, suggested that with the unexpected ouster of Wickremesinghe “many western countries and their embassies, high commissions in Colombo were wrong-footed. They did not expect this.” They assumed they had “enough time to deal with the emergence of the Rajapaksas” between now and the election due in 2020. The suddenness of these developments may explain the gaps in their logic and reasoning,he said.

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Sri Lanka’s non-Western friends have reacted differently to these events.There were no demandsas there were from Western missions and foreign offices,that Sri Lanka’s parliament “must reconvene immediately!” etc.

China said this was an internal problem it believed Sri Lanka would find ways to overcome. Indian government spokesman Raveesh Kumar told reporters in Delhi “This is something which has to be handled within Sri Lanka.” In a statementin Delhi, seemingly attributed to India’s Foreign Secretary Vijay Gokhale, Sri Lanka’s state-run Daily News said “they are willing to work with any Prime Minister in the interests of both countries.” Similar remarks were reported in the Sunday Morning newspaper citing unnamed Indian Foreign Ministry sources. The message in these somewhat cryptic reports – not contradicted by Delhi -would need to be deciphered in the light Indian media accounts of the red-carpet welcome that was accorded to Rajapaksa, a former president, when he visited Delhi two months ago at the invitation of BJP’s Subramanian Swamy.

Japan has expressed the hope that ‘stability will be ensured through due process and the law.’  Contrary to foreign media reports, Japan has not threatened to withhold a $1.4 billion loan for a proposed Light Rail project. “The loan is not suspended or put on hold,” said a spokesman from the Commercial section of the Japanese Embassy, who did not wish to be named.

As for the conduct of Speaker Karu Jayasuriya who figured prominently in the drama of the last few days, many aspects of it remain a mystery. Initially he accepted the prime minister and cabinet appointed by the president, and assigned offices and seats for them accordingly in parliament. Later, in an inexplicableturnaround, he wrote to the president claiming that his ‘conscience’ compelled him to ‘accept the status that existed previously’ because the president’s actions were ‘undemocratic and unconstitutional.’

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Was it a coincidence that the Speaker’s sudden substitution of Conscience for Standing Orders came after he had been visited by envoys from Europe and Canada, along with the UN resident rep, and warned of adverse consequences of Wickremesinghe’s dismissal? US embassy officials too are reported to have met him in parliament around this time. A few days later eleven Colombo-based envoys again met himand collectively urged him“to reconvene parliament so they could determine which the government in Sri Lanka was,” according to the Sunday Times political column of 04.11.18.

It is not the job of the Speaker to convene parliament. It is anybody’s guess whether these diplomatic visitationsputJayasuriya under pressure, or whether he was emboldened by them. What is apparent from his actions, visible to all on public television over the last few days,is that the Speaker has adopted a course of action that is partisan, and influenced by his party affiliation. So much so that one must ask if he has forfeited his claim to a role that requires him to be independent and even-handed. The unnatural determination shown by himto have a NCM against the government passed, by fair means or foul, disregarding Standing Orders and parliamentary tradition, has contributed toreducing the House and its proceedings to the level of high farce.

Courtesy Dateline Colombo,