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Asia’s Oldest Democracy Takes a Hit

Political maneuvering by Sri Lankan President Sirisena won’t end well.

A supporter of ousted Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe protests at a rally in Colombo, Sri Lanka on Nov. 15. (Lakruwan Wanniarachchi/AFP/Getty Images)
A supporter of ousted Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe protests at a rally in Colombo, Sri Lanka on Nov. 15. (Lakruwan Wanniarachchi/AFP/Getty Images)

Sri Lanka, Asia’s oldest democracy, is facing its worst constitutional crisis ever. At stake is not merely domestic peace but regional stability, as well.

The meltdown began in October, when President Maithripala Sirisena sacked Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe, appointed former President Mahinda Rajapaksa in his place, and suspended a session of parliament so as to give Rajapaksa time to cobble together a parliamentary majority. When it became clear that Rajapaksa was unable to do so, the president dissolved parliament this week and called for new elections in early January.

Siresena’s dismissal of Wickremesinghe came as a shock. Political observers knew that the two men had become estranged, but no one expected the president to remove the prime minister. After all, Sri Lanka’s constitution makes clear that prime ministers only leave office if they resign, die, cease to be a member of parliament, or suffer a no-confidence vote in parliament. And the conditions for such a vote are quite specific: It must be called due to the government failing to pass appropriations bills or parliament refusing to endorse government policy statements. The constitution also makes it abundantly clear that the president cannot dissolve parliament until the body has served four and a half of its five-year term. The current parliament was elected in August 2015.

Sirsena’s choice of Rajapaksa to replace Wickremesinghe was likewise stunning. The men, both members of the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP), were longtime rivals. At one point, Siresena even claimed that Rajapaksa’s supporters would have murdered him and his family if Rajapaksa had won a third presidential term in January 2015. Over his 10 years in power, an increasingly authoritarian Rajapaksa refused to reconcile with traumatized minority Tamils who were worst affected by the island’s civil war, gave free rein to Sinhalese Buddhist extremists who attacked the island’s Muslim community, indulged in massive corruption as he tried to create a political dynasty, and roiled relations with India and the West as he cozied up to China. His defeat in 2015 and the rise of a national unity government headed by the SLFP, now under Sirisena’s control, and Wickremesinghe’s United National Party (UNP), was rightly considered a win for democracy.

So why did Sirisena resort to such skullduggery and why did Rajapaksa go along with it?

Sirisena’s victory in 2015 was largely thanks to Tamil and Muslim minorities and UNP supporters. When he won, he promised that he would only serve one term. He now wants to run for reelection but lacks a base to do so, because Rajapaksa remains the most popular politician among the majority Sinhalese Buddhists and the SLFP, which considers Sirisena a turncoat. With Wickremesinghe also determined to run for president, Sirisena felt his only route to re-election was by joining forces with Rajapaksa.

But his efforts didn’t take him very far. The Supreme Court has issued an interim decision staying the president’s dissolution of parliament, and a reconvened parliament has passed a no-confidence motion against Rajapaksa. This was Rajapaksa’s most humiliating moment in politics to date, but he will not go away quietly because he fears the charges of corruption that have piled up against him and family members and that the courts could act on once he is out of government. Indeed, many of the protagonists who have supported Rajapaksa throughout this sorry affair are also facing charges of corruption and were hoping that with him as prime minister, they would get off scot-free. They too will not give up easily.

Ministers who served under Wickremesinghe want the Rajapaksa appointees out and their ministries back, but Sirisena claims that he is not bound to respect the vote against Rajapaksa. Thus, the crisis has worsened, and there is no way to tell whether it will get resolved through negotiations or street violence. Turbulent parliamentary sessions, Rajapaksa and his supporters demanding elections right away, and UNP supporters protesting on the streets all indicate that the possibility of street violence lurks. A final determination by the Supreme Court on the legality of dissolution will, hopefully, resolve matters; but even then, there is no gainsaying that Sri Lanka’s democracy has been sullied.

Sri Lanka’s ongoing constitutional crisis has ramifications beyond the country’s shores. In recent years, China has used investment in the island to thumb its nose at India. And India, for its part, has long been involved in the country’s politics. Delhi had viewed the Rajapaksa’s sudden return to power with misgiving because he had relied on China to end the Sri Lankan civil war and was far more open to Chinese infrastructure investments than his successor. With the renewed turmoil in the country, India fears China’s return to the island’s internal politics.

India’s fears are hardly unfounded. China’s ambassador was the only one to visit and congratulate Rajapaksa when he was appointed prime minister. But China may have to realize that its support for authoritarian leaders can by stymied by democratic processes. This was the case when Rajapaksa was ousted in 2015, and when pro-China authoritarian leaders were defeated in Malaysia and the Maldives earlier this year. The events in Sri Lanka these past few days reinforce the precariousness of China’s position.

India has legitimate interests in the country for reasons of both domestic as well as international politics. Southern India is home to more than 69 million Tamils; that population has a keen interest in the well-being of their ethnic kin in Sri Lanka, who have been the subject of widespread discrimination since the Sri Lankan civil war. Simultaneously, it has concerns about China’s toehold in the country.

Yet India’s prime minister, Narendra Modi, can ill-afford to come across as overbearing or overly intrusive. Rajapaksa, an extremely deft, rabble-rousing politician, can easily stoke anti-Indian Sinhalese sentiment in an attempt to stage a political comeback. Modi will thus have to demonstrate considerable diplomatic dexterity and finesse to ensure that the democratic process in Sri Lanka is respected. In this context, it may well behoove India to enlist the support of a strategic partner like the United States to help ward off Sri Lanka’s lurch toward authoritarianism and, possibly, toward China as well.

Neil DeVotta is a professor of politics and international affairs at Wake Forest University.


Sumit Ganguly is a distinguished professor of political science and the Rabindranath Tagore chair in Indian cultures and civilizations at Indiana University, Bloomington.

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