Sri Lankan political crisis: Supreme Court overturns President’s order to dissolve parliament

By Elton Gomes

Sri Lanka Supreme Court, on Tuesday, stayed President Maithripala Sirisena’s order to dissolve the parliament. The court has also put a hold on plans of conducting early elections in January.

Sirisena’s move to call for early elections had been deemed unconstitutional by many. His decision was heavily criticised by ousted prime minister Ranil Wickremesinghe, some political parties, and civil society groups.

Hailing the Supreme Court’s ruling, Wickremesinghe tweeted that the “people have won their first victory”.

All petitions filed against Sirisena’s decision will now be heard on December 4, 5, and 6, the Supreme Court ruled.

The Supreme Court’s ruling comes after 13 fundamental rights petitions were filed against the dissolution of the parliament. The bench heard the petitions filed during its initial hearing on November 12.

Commissioner Ratnajeevan Hoole was among the petitioners who argued that President Sirisena had violated the constitution. Hoole said the president had violated the law in calling for early elections on January 5, 2019.

The situation in the island nation has been tenuous since President Sirisena ousted incumbent Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe. Things turned deadly after sacked minister Arjuna Ranatunga was arrested in a shooting incident that killed one person, while Wickremesinghe’s supporters held several protests.

How did the crisis begin?

In a surprise move in October, President Maithripala Sirisena sacked Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe, and replaced him with Mahinda Rajapaksa — a former president — in a hurried ceremony in Sri Lankan capital Colombo.

Rajapaksa is perhaps the most popular politician in Sri Lanka. Experts claim that Sirisena joined hands with Rajapaksa as this was the only way the former could remain in power.

Wickremesinghe, however, remained insistent that he was the lawful prime minister. He called for an urgent parliament sitting to prove his majority, but Sirisena responded by suspending parliament until November 16 — a move that critics say was aimed at gathering support for Rajapaksa.

International reactions

India stated that it was closely following the developments in Colombo, and that it hoped Sri Lankan parties would respect the constitution and democratic values.

China was one of the few countries that congratulated Rajapaksa and called for dialogue. Known for his pro-Beijing stance, Rajapaksa had moved Sri Lanka closer to Beijing during his tenure in 2005-2015.

On the other hand, several Western countries were concerned about these developments. While the United States supported Wickremesinghe’s call to resume parliament, the United Nations, the United Kingdom, France, and Germany urged all parties to avoid violence.

Sri Lanka assembly Speaker calls for floor test

Sri Lankan Speaker Karu Jayasuriya pushed for a floor test in parliament to resolve the issue of two prime ministers in the country.

Jayasuriya’s remarks termed the sacking of Prime Minister Wickremesinghe as “anti-democratic.” He also asserted that he would not recognise Rajapaksa as prime minister unless it was proven by a floor test.

However, a source from Sirisena’s office denied that they had agreed with Jayasuriya to hold a floor test.

Sirisena dissolved parliament, called for snap elections

In an attempt to drum up support for preferred candidate Mahinda Rajapaksa, President Sirisena had dissolved the parliament and had called for snap elections for January 5, 2019.

Sirisena had signed a decree dismissing Sri Lanka’s 225-member assembly hours after his party admitted that it did not have enough votes to support Mahinda Rajapakse against Ranil Wickremesinghe.

Before signing the order, Sirisena had inducted more ministers into the cabinet headed by Rajapaksa, a minister told AFP on the condition of anonymity.

Following the parliament’s dissolution on Friday, Ranil Wickremesinghe’s United National Party had called the move illegal. “This dissolution by the President is illegal and goes against the constitution. We will be fighting this to ensure that Democracy reigns supreme in the country,” the party said on Twitter.

Sri Lankan parties challenge dissolution of parliament

Sri Lanka’s main parties, on Monday, had challenged Sirisena’s decision to dissolve parliament. Three parties, which collectively enjoy an absolute majority in the assembly, had asked the Supreme Court to announce the president’s actions as illegal.

Ranil Wickremesinghe’s United National Party (UNP), the main opposition party Tamil National Alliance (TNA), and the leftist JVP, or People’s Liberation Front, were among the 10 groups that had filed the petition, officials said.

“The petitions were accepted this morning and it is up to the Chief Justice to decide when it will be taken up for hearing,” a court official said, AFP reported.

What next?

Reports on Sunday stated that Mahinda Rajapaksa has ended his five-decade-long association with the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) and has joined the Sri Lanka People’s Party (SLPP).

Rajapaksa’s move was an indicator that he would have contested in the snap polls from his own party rather than from Sirisena’s SLFP. Given the recent ruling by Supreme Court, the repercussions of joining SLPP remain to be seen.

The political situation in Sri Lanka is getting worse.. All eyes will be on who has the most numbers. Wickremesinghe appears to have a narrow edge in the parliament. Before the crisis, his United National Party (UNP) had 105 legislators in the 225-member House, while Sirisena and Rajapaksa’s United People’s Freedom Alliance (UPFA) had 95.

Since the crisis began, at least five UNP legislators have crossed over to the UPFA. Analysts expect the horse-trading to intensify, while maintaining that Wickremesinghe may lose his advantage the longer Rajapaksa is allowed to consolidate power.

Elton Gomes is a staff writer at Qrius

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