An eventful week | Sunday Observer

An eventful week

4 November, 2018

The last week was one of the most politically tumultuous weeks ever witnessed in this country. The events that would see a radical shift in the country’s political landscape began on Friday, October 26, with the rather unexpected appointment of former President Mahinda Rajapaksa as the Prime Minister. This was initially a rumour shared on social media platforms, but a little while later, a couple of private television stations showed footage of the swearing-in ceremony.

Rupavahini did not refer to this until late, in its 8 p.m. news bulletin, when the announcer paused for a while before announcing the appointment as ‘Breaking News’. With that announcement, the entire country was left with no doubts whatsoever that a major political shift has occurred.

By this time, jubilant Rajapaksa supporters were already lighting firecrackers in all major cities, but the one question that everyone was asking was left unanswered: Why the Change? Political pundits on TV and radio stations were offering various answers, but one thing was clear – serious differences had erupted between the two partners in the Yahapalanaya Government over several key issues including the economy, and the UPFA decided that it could no longer be part of the Coalition. Just the week before, the Cabinet had flared up over a proposal to sell the East Container Terminal of Colombo Port to India.

In the light of these differences, the UPFA decided to quit en masse from the Good Governance administration, triggering the collapse of the Government and the Cabinet. According to many legal luminaries, the post of Prime Minister also falls vacant when the Cabinet is dissolved and hence, the President appointed Mahinda Rajapaksa, who he believed had the confidence of a majority of MPs, as the Prime Minister.

This immediately stirred up a hornet’s nest, as counter arguments began. Some were of the view that under the 19th Amendment, the President does not have the power to sack the Prime Minister (in this case Ranil Wickremesinghe) and appoint another MP in his place. However, others pointed out that this interpretation was due to a translation error in the English version of the Constitution, which does not have the words “upon the removal of” [the Prime Minister].

The Sinhala version does have this wording and in a court of law, it is the Sinhala version that prevails. The inference here is that the ‘removal’ can only be done by the President. Judging by the discourse in social media and traditional media, most experts are aligned with the view that the President does indeed have the power to remove the Prime Minister even under the 19th Amendment.

However, over at Temple Trees, Ranil Wickremesinghe refused to leave and continued to proclaim that he was still the Prime Minister. This standoff is still on at the time of writing this, though former Defence Secretary Gotabhaya Rajapaksa had reportedly discussed and assured Wickremesinghe’s security in case he leaves Temple Trees.

Another significant development was the appointment of 12 Cabinet Ministers initially, including four members from the UNP – Suresh Vadivel, Wijeyadasa Rajapakshe, Ananda Aluthgamage and Wasantha Senanayake. Dunesh Gankanda crossed over a couple of days later. Most ministries of SLFP Ministers were the ones they held earlier, to give a sense of continuity to Government projects.

Since there was a lot of speculation over the change of Government, it was left to President Sirisena himself to clarify what led him to take this decision to sack the incumbent Prime Minister and appoint another. In an address to the Nation telecast live over all TV channels, the President explained that a verified plot to assassinate him was one of the main reasons to take drastic action.

This plot, which has been in the news for some time, was initially revealed by Namal Kumara of the Anti Corruption Brigade, who said, Gotabaya Rajapaksa was another target of the same plot. Later, it was revealed that they had targeted to assassinate former President Rajapaska as well.

The President noted that the UNP leadership and the Law and Order Ministry were slow to react to this news item. DIG Nalaka Silva, one of the figures named by Namal Kumara, was arrested only a couple of weeks ago. The President feared that an attempt on his life was imminent.

The other main reason that the President cited was that the UNP leadership and his ‘kitchen cabinet’ of a few trusted advisors took many crucial economic decisions without consulting him or anyone else. He said the economic program pursued by the UNP leadership had completely alienated the common man, who found the cost of living unbearable.

The next big news was the President’s decision to prorogue Parliament until November 16. The Government’s explanation was that it needed some time to formulate a ‘Vote on Account’ instead of the Budget, which was due to be presented in the first week of November. The UNP MPs were clamouring for an earlier date to reconvene Parliament possibly to show that they had the bigger numbers. The Speaker was also of the opinion that Parliament should be convened earlier than November 16.

In this context, several legal experts pointed out that Parliament anyway does not have the power per se to vote for a Prime Minister. There are indications that Parliament may be convened early, but legal experts on both sides of the political divide seem to be unanimous in their opinion that only the President has the power and discretion to reconvene Parliament once it is prorogued.

The JVP and the TNA seem to have adopted a neutral strategy so far, with regard to the developments, though Opposition leader R. Sampanthan met the new Prime Minister a couple of days ago. The JVP also held a rally on the political situation.

There are indications that both sides are harping on a General Election as the ideal solution to the ‘Constitutional Crisis’ as the present situation has been referred to by foreign media. In fact, the foreign media which were heavily focused on US midterm elections and certain political events in Europe took a few days to report on the situation in Sri Lanka in detail. Several countries including China, Palestine and Oman have already congratulated the incoming administration.

Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa himself hinted at the possibility of going for an early General Election should the Budget they present be defeated. “I don’t mind it at all, it means we can go before the people for a bigger mandate.” Political analysts and observers here and around the world are keenly watching the latest political developments to see what happens next.