“What was done to me will be done to you one day,” said Mahinda Rajapaksa to Ranil Wickremesinghe soon after the presidential election of 2015. The comments turned out to be prophetic. In Sri Lankan political history, Friday, the twenty-sixth of October was the night of the long knives. The day began innocuously enough. If [...]


Oct. 26, 2018: The purge and the ‘Night of the Long Knives’

Premier Stakes

“What was done to me will be done to you one day,” said Mahinda Rajapaksa to Ranil Wickremesinghe soon after the presidential election of 2015. The comments turned out to be prophetic.

Wickremesinghe, flanked by party stalwarts and wife Maithree, addresses a protest rally held outside Temple Trees

In Sri Lankan political history, Friday, the twenty-sixth of October was the night of the long knives.

The day began innocuously enough. If Sri Lankans gathered at their favourite watering hole to discuss the prospects of their nation, it would have been about whether their cricket team, which had recorded a rare but record-breaking win against the visiting World No. 1 ranked English cricket team on Tuesday, would be able to repeat their performance at a T20 encounter of the gentleman’s game on Saturday.

By night time, however, a very different kind of game was underway- and it was being played in the most ungentlemanly manner. It wasn’t cricket and it was not played by Queensbury rules. The first hint that something was afoot came when it was announced that the United Peoples’ Freedom Alliance (UPFA) had pulled out of the ruling coalition with the United National Party (UNP) led United National Front (UNF).

Then came the bombshell: It was announced that Mahinda Rajapaksa had been sworn in as Prime Minister by President Maithripala Sirisena. Shortly afterwards, a terse, one paragraph letter — written by Sirisena to Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe saying that he had been relieved of his duties under Article 42(4) of the Constitution — was released to the media.

There was no live telecast of the swearing-in. The first video footage of the event emerged on social media from recordings made on smartphones by the few present.

Wickremesinghe, who was in Galle, was caught unawares and rushed back to Colombo to deal with the crisis. The resulting political conundrum continues to confound the country today, more than a week later.

Sirisena has, since, sworn in more than a dozen ministers, Rajapaksa among them, being allocated the key Finance Ministry. Wickremesinghe meanwhile has refused to leave Temple Trees, the official residence of the Prime Minister at Kollupitiya. The international community has expressed concern at this turn of events, with some Western countries issuing adverse travel advisories, days after Sri Lanka was voted as the No.1 global tourist destination by the popular international travel journal, The Lonely Planet.

Meanwhile, the new government is in disarray. State media institutions were to take the first hit, with state broadcaster Rupavahini changing its tune on Friday night around 9.30 pm as Rajapaksa loyalists took over the institution, forcing Ministers Mangala Samaraweera, Rajitha Senaratne and young MP Chatura Senaratne who had arrived at the station to make a hasty exit amidst an unruly mob booing and threatening them.

The unrest has already claimed one life when clashes erupted at the Ceylon Petroleum Corporation at Dematagoda when Minister Arjuna Ranatunga arrived there. A mob surrounded Ranatunga who was holed up in the corporation’s offices for three hours. He made his getaway donning the uniform of a Special Task Force (STF) commando and leaving with a STF contingent. Ranatunga’s bodyguard shot at the mob and one person succumbed to his injuries.

The general sense of disapproval hanging over Sirisena’s action stems from his arbitrary decision to remove Wickremesinghe from office without resorting to a specific provision in the Constitution. Article 42(4) referred to in his letter to Wickremesinghe merely states that “The President shall appoint as Prime Minister the Member of Parliament, who, in the President’s opinion, is most likely to command the confidence of Parliament”.

Sirisena and his loyalists argue that that the Cabinet ceased to function when the UPFA pulled out of the government. That begs the question as to why the UPFA- with Sirisena’s blessings- went to the trouble of putting together a motion of no confidence against Wickremesinghe in April to try and remove him, when they could have pulled out of the government then and dismissed Wickremesinghe.

One-time professor of law turned politician G. L. Peiris tried to be the lawyer he never was. His arguments were roundly criticized by his opponents and disowned by his supporters. Unknown to him was the Supreme Court determination that the Interpretation ordinance is subservient to the Constitution, something a first year law student would know as our ‘Focus on Rights’ columnist pointed out last week.

Sri Lanka, despite its upheavals, insurrections and terrorist wars in its seventy years of post-independence history, has always had democratic changes of government.

There have been times when governments have extended its tenure by questionable means, such as when Sirima Bandaranaike extended the term of office of her 1970 government by promulgating a Republican Constitution and when her bête noire, J.R. Jayewardene extended the life of the 1977 Parliament through a referendum in 1982. However, there has never been an arbitrary removal of a government — and that too by a President who came to power promising to abolish the authoritarian powers of the Presidency.

Having committed himself to the unimaginable, Sirisena now has to justify it by demonstrating that Rajapaksa enjoyed the confidence of Parliament — and the numbers game is in full swing, amidst speculation that cash and promises of ministerial office are being dangled before UNPers, particularly those disgruntled with Wickremesinghe’s leadership. Anti-defection laws have long been talked of, but never implemented. If elections and people’s mandates are not to be a standing joke in the future, these laws seem imperative. A Parliament, nay a country and its people cannot be held ransom to a few political frogs.

In what was an obvious attempt to buy time for this exercise, Sirisena prorogued Parliament last Saturday before the ink had dried from signing Rajapaksa’s appointment letter. The prorogation has also been questioned as Speaker Karu Jayasuriya was not informed. A similar situation arose in November 2003 when the then President Chandrika Kumaratunga prorogued Parliament — again, when a government led by the UNP was in office and Wickremesinghe was Prime Minister.

At the time, the then Speaker Joseph Michael Perera gave a scathing ruling on the prorogation, describing it as “irrational and against the wishes of the Parliament” and describing it as an act to “deliberately prevent the due functioning of Parliament” and “paralysing the sovereignty of the people”. Interestingly, on that occasion, writing to Speaker Perera supporting the prorogation of Parliament were the then Opposition Leader Mahinda Rajapaksa, Dinesh Gunewardena and Wimal Weerawansa. President R. Premadasa did it when an impeachment motion was presented against him.

The UPFA has been successful in convincing five MPs elected to Parliament from the United National Front (UNF) to join them. They are Ananda Aluthgamage, Vasantha Senanayake, Vadivel Suresh, Wijeyadasa Rajapakshe and Dunesh Gankanda. All of them have been rewarded with ministerial or deputy or state ministerial posts.

Still, Mahinda Rajapaksa has a challenging task before him. He commands the support of 95 UPFA MPs, six UNFers, one TNA MP and Douglas Devananda. That leaves him still nine MPs short of the magical number of 113 that gives him the confidence of Parliament to remain as Prime Minister. He probably has a Buddhist monk up his sleeve and others with whom his team is negotiating.

The UNP’s response has been to dig their heels in. Wickremesinghe is holed up in Temple Trees and is refusing to budge, claiming that he is still the lawful Prime Minister. This is an eerie repeat of the events of 1964, with the roles reversed. That was when the UNP engineered the downfall of the Sirima Bandaranaike government through the Press ‘Takeover’ Bill. At that time, Ms. Bandaranaike stayed put at Temple Trees, her Trotskyite allies were shouting slogans against the UNP from the residence’s parapet walls, and the UNP’s strategists at the time were trying to smoke her out of the official residence.

Many wonder why Sirisena took such a drastic step when he could bide his time and align with the Rajapaksas just prior to national elections, not due until 2020. The reason for the indecent hurry — which has now forever sullied Sirisena’s image as a democrat — may well be two-fold: Sirisena was keen to secure a ‘deal’ with the Rajapaksas that would ensure him nomination from a SLFP-led coalition at the next presidential elections; and the Rajapaksas were keen to get into government in the face of increasing momentum in the multitude of legal proceedings against them. Besides, it is always advantageous to face elections as an incumbent government, with state resources at their disposal, the use and abuse of which the Rajapaksas have never shied away from.

However, there could still be a twist in the tale. If Rajapaksa does survive in a reconvened Parliament as Prime Minister, it is only a matter of time before the entire SLFP rallies around him marginalising Sirisena even further. Nominations for the next presidential election are one year away and there is every possibility that Sirisena could be sidelined for another Rajapaksa, most possibly Gotabaya unless the elder Rajapaksa seeks a Supreme Court determination that he is entitled to contest again, a kite that was sent to test the wind earlier in the year. Whichever way, Sirisena might have painted himself into a yet smaller corner.

What happens over the next few days is the question on everyone’s mind. The UNF has already given the Speaker a motion of no confidence against Rajapaksa. One may ask if this is a tacit acknowledgment of Rajapaksa’s appointment and if it would not have been better for the motion to have instead been a vote of confidence on Wickremesighe. If Rajapaksa survives, he seems to prefer a general (parliamentary) election and that may be why he has invited the UNF to defeat his Vote on Account, which if termed a substitute for a budget (Appropriation Bill), can, arguably pave the way for the dissolution of Parliament prior to mid-2019 as the 19th Amendment (Article 70) precludes an election prior to that time otherwise.

If however, Rajapaksa doesn’t muster the required numbers, there will be many ramifications to deal with. A vote of no confidence against a Rajapaksa led government would trigger Article 48(2) of the Constitution, requiring Sirisena to either appoint a new Prime Minister or dissolve Parliament anyway stating that the Government has been defeated leading to another Constitutional crisis.

All this may well pave the way for early elections making a mockery of his action in appointing Rajapaksa in the first instance. Unless all of this is in the grand scheme of things to precipitate early parliamentary elections. On the other hand, a general election is not an option at this stage as Article 70(1) of the Constitution especifically precludes the President from dissolving Parliament, unless there is an endorsement to dissolve Parliament from the Parliament itself, with a two-thirds majority. For that, Wickremesinghe must prove he commands the majority of Parliament and Rajapaksa’s appointment therefore was unconstitutional.

While the focus of attention in the past week has been on who the real Prime Minister of Sri Lanka is, this crisis is unprecedented in the country in terms of a sitting President attempting to upend the Constitution to serve his political ends, and yet another blot on Sri Lanka’s otherwise long-standing reputation as a robust democracy.

It also proves, beyond reasonable doubt, that Maithripala (Sirisena) is not the idealistic Mahatma or Mandela he promised to be. Neither is he as astute as Machiavelli or Mahaushadha. Instead, history will record that his political wisdom is more in line with that of ‘Mahadenamutta’ of Sinhala folklore who thought he had solutions to every issue but in reality, only might have made matters worse

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