Sri Lanka heads for government shut down as crisis drags

ECONOMYNEXT – The public sector could be at a standstill from the end of the month unless the political power struggle is ended and parliament makes urgent arrangements to meet expenditure in the New Year, officials warned Saturday.

President Maithripala Sirisena triggered the unprecedented crisis by sacking Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe just 10 days before the unveiling of the on November 5. The disputed government he installed has failed to announce a promised vote-on-account in place of a budget.

Contrary to claims from Sirisena loyalists that the president could directly spend money from the consolidated fund for three months in the absence of a budget, the constitution makes such provision only in the event when parliament stands dissolved.

"We are in uncharted waters. There is no way the president can order spending when parliament is in session,” a senior finance ministry official said asking not to be named. “Unless some emergency measure is taken, there will be no legal way to finance government spending from January 1.”

Article 150 (3) of the constitution allows the president to spend money from the consolidated fund for three months only at a time when he has dissolved parliament before a budget has been approved by the House.

Sirisena’s sacking of the legislature on November 9 is currently being challenged before the Supreme Court and a verdict is expected tomorrow or this week at the latest.

The court suspended Sirisena’s gazette notification dissolving parliament and calling a snap election for January 5. The Supreme Court ruling will have far reaching ramifications not only for the bitter power struggle but also public finances.

-Secretaries have no authority-

Even the state spending after November 30 is highly questionable given that parliament with an absolute majority voted to stop all non-essential spending of the state. A day earlier, it voted to block any spending by the Secretary to the Prime Minister.

On Monday, President Sirisena met with ministry secretaries he had appointed recently and ordered them to continue with their work to ensure public services were maintained, but legal experts noted that the president did not have such powers as the secretaries were no longer in office.





Under Article 52 (3) of the constitution, the secretaries to all ministries lose their jobs when the prime minister is defeated in a no-confidence motion, resigns or otherwise removed from his position. The purported prime minister lost a no-confidence motion (NCM) on November 14.

The Court of Appeal on December 3 issued an interim order suspending Mahinda Rajapaksa from exercising the powers of the prime minister until he can prove on what authority he is holding office after losing a NCM.

Senior treasury officials last week alerted government suppliers that they may not get paid on time unless the political crisis was resolved and a government was re-established before the end of the year.
Many ministry secretaries avoided signing any documents. When they did it was mostly backdated to avoid any future prosecution.

“The Secretary to a ministry shall cease to hold office upon the dissolution of the cabinet of ministers under the provisions of the constitution…,” according to Article 52 (3) which applies in this case, officials noted.

The Court of Appeal decision on the Quo Warranto demanding on what basis Rajapaksa and his cabinet were holding office after losing an NCM is due this week. The court upholding the petition by 122 Members of parliament could leave all ministry secretaries exposed to criminal prosecution.

President Sirisena noted last week that he would end the power struggle by Tuesday (December 11) but did not say how. He could be banking on the Supreme Court ruling in his favour over the legality of his dissolving parliament.

Should the Supreme Court hold against him, Sirisena could become exposed to impeachment as well as criminal prosecution soon after he leaves office. The immunity of the president is for himself against prosecution while in office, but the day he leaves he could be charged for any action committed while in office.

Former President Chandrika Kumaratunga had to pay fine three million rupees over an unlawful land acquisition and subsequent sale of such land for the Water’s Edge development while she was in office.
While faulting her for the transaction, the court held that the fine on her was a token that was expected to serve as a deterrent to others.

“We believe such a token payment of the real loss to the state of several hundreds of millions, will serve to "remind" present and future state actors and agencies (i) of their paramount duty to further the Public Trust and (ii) that their actions are subject to the Rule of Law,” the three-judge bench said in its judgement SC 352/2007.

This landmark judgement could be used in respect of many state officials and politicians, including Sirisena. (Colombo)


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