Sri Lanka heads for uneasy new political trajectory
ECONOMYNEXT – The President and Prime Minister will return home this week from India and Belgium, respectively, to pick up the political pieces after Maithripala Sirisena’s controversial remarks that deepened a split in the uneasy unity government.
Our Political Correspondent takes a look at options for the two leaders and possible outcomes for Sri Lanka as it grapples with an economic crisis and faces international scrutiny of its pledges to war crimes accountability.
Main options for President Sirisena:
1) Bow to the latest demands of civil society activists who brought him to power. Sack the head of military intelligence Tuan Suresh Sallay and Justice Minister Wijayadasa Rajapaksha identified by civil society groups as villains of the unity regime. This will help the President to win back some public goodwill. Sacking Sally may go down well with the UNP government too, but any action against minister Rajapaksha may not be popular with Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe.
2) Take over the ministry of Law and Order and exercise direct control over the controversial Financial Crimes Investigations Division (FCID) and the Criminal Investigations Division of the police. This could cause more problems with the civil society groups and escalate the conflict with Prime Minister Wickremesinghe.
3) Maintain the status quo by taking no action against the FCID, CID or the Law and Order ministry. This could strengthen the assertion of the Rajapaksa-faction of the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) that he is weak.
Main options for Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe
1) Address internal issues of FCID and the CID and carry out a shake:up of senior police appointments. Having scapegoats to blame will help the Prime Minister mend fences with the President, but it is unlikely to bring about a qualitative difference.
2). Appoint a bipartisan ministerial committee to address the issues raised by the President and Wickremesinghe’s own concerns about the pace of investigations. It will be a trademark Ranil tactic to buy time and side-step the issue.
3). Call for a dissolution of parliament and hope that a fresh election will give him an absolute majority in the 225-member parliament where he is short of six seats to cross the 113 halfway point.
Best Case: The President and the Prime Minister agree to face-saving cosmetic changes at the FCID and the CID and make a public statement applauding the work of the independent bribery commission and deploy more investigators and lawyers to speed up its work. Civil society groups rally behind the move and President Sirisena’s October 12 remarks are forgiven as an aberration. All’s well that ends well.
Worst case: President Sirisena exercises executive powers to take over the Law and Order ministry even though the 19th amendment is not crystal clear if he has the power to do it without the "advice" of the Prime Minister. Nevertheless, he will go ahead under paragraph 40 (3) of the 19th amendment which says:
"The President may at any time change the assignment of subjects and functions and the composition of the Cabinet of Ministers. Such changes shall not affect the continuity of the Cabinet of Ministers and the continuity of its responsibility to Parliament." He will not sack current incumbent Sagala Ratnayake, but can re-assign the functions of the ministry such as police functions which can be transferred to the defence ministry leaving only the management of police buildings to the minister.
Nightmare scenario: President Sirisena argues his mandate pre-dates the 19th amendment to the constitution and therefore he has the power to dismiss the Prime Minister. Brings his new ally, former defence secretary Gotabhaya Rajapaksa to parliament as a national list MP and forms an SLFP-led government with the support of Rajapaksa loyalists.
The country will face a constitutional crisis over the interpretation of the applicability of the 19th amendment Courts which still have a large number of Rajapaksa-appointed judges who will hold with Sirisena and ensure an SLFP government pushing the UNP to the opposition. Sri Lanka reneges on pledges to the international community on accountability, democracy and human rights. Sri Lanka will join the Maldives in condemning international concerns over human rights.
Likely medium term scenario: Neither the President nor the Prime Minister will escalate the situation and the country will head for a period of instability brought on by the dual-leadership. The administration will be split on the lines of those supporting the president and others with the UNP.
More contentious issues such as constitutional reform and politically sensitive reconciliation efforts will be on the back burner. International goodwill will slowly erode and history will repeat itself. There will be no progress towards a political settlement to the country’s ethnic problem and the economy will remain sluggish.