Sri Lanka is experiencing a dramatic constitutional crisis – an unprecedented parliamentary coup. It has seen the president – Maithripala Sirisena – break his coalition with Ranil Wickramasinghe, suspend parliament and appoint the former dictator/president Mahinda Rajapaksa to take the prime ministership.
The United Socialist Party held its bi-annual conference just two weeks prior to this development. In the document, unanimously adopted at the conference, we wrote in the first paragraph: “The 15th National Conference of our party is held at a time when the Sri Lankan capitalist class is faced with a serious crisis. This ‘Yahapalana’ (‘Good Governance’) government can be termed the weakest since so-called independence from British rule 70 years ago.”
It goes on to explain that “the crisis in the government was evident when President Sirisena and former President Mahinda Rajapaksa – the two opposition political leaders – conspired to have a ‘no confidence’ motion passed against PM Wickremasinghe…[they] wanted Ranil Wickremasinghe ousted from the premiership. But Ranil was able to win the confidence of parliament, defeating the no confidence motion, and thus he temporarily gained stability. But that did not resolve the crisis in government”.
In the conclusion of the document, we emphasised that it was clear that the social atmosphere we live in today is of a society where one small vibration could lead to a dramatic change.
President Maithripala Sirisena has used his presidential powers to oust Prime Minister Ranil Wickremasinghe, and appoint former president Mahinda Rajapaksa as the new prime minister. The legality of this action by President Sirisena can be debated in relation to the procedure. But more important is that this move was conducted in a completely conspiratorial manner, with no consultation of the parliament or the prime minister and the cabinet.
This is a purely constitutional coup because the serving prime minister has not legally ceased to function in office before a new prime minister has been appointed. This kind of parliamentary coup is new to Sri Lankan politics but we have seen many of a similar nature in the South Asian region – in Pakistan and the Maldives, for example. But there is an argument that has come from the Rajapaksa camp that the president did the same to remove the former prime minister, Jayarathna, soon after he became the president in January 2015. That situation was completely different from now because before he became president his election promise was that he would appoint Ranil as the prime minister if he won the election. Not only that, but he came to power with 6.2 million votes and allowed the parliament to continue and did not prorogue it, as he has done this time.
In addition, the 19th Amendment to the Sri Lankan constitution, which was passed in parliament within the first 100 days after he became the president in 2015, says that the prime minister can only cease to hold the office through death or resignation. In this context, the question arises as to why Sirisena did not allow parliament to function as usual. Instead of that, the president has prorogued the parliament until 16th November. This constitutional coup is to give time to Rajapaksa to buy the parliamentary members over to his side by using his powers as a prime minister. As we all know, most of parliament’s members have no policies but are there for the money and the perks. We can see that some MPs have already started crossing over to Rajapaksa’s side.
Mahinda and Ranil are each claiming that they have a majority in the parliament and will be able to get the necessary 113 MPs on their side. The present composition in the parliament is that the pro-capitalist UNP (United National Party) has 87 members together with their allies – 7 SLMC (Sri Lanka Muslim Congress), 6 TPA (Tamil Progressive Alliance) Hill Country members, 5 ACMC (All Ceylon Makkal Congress) and 2 JHU (Jathika Hela Urumaya) members. Mahinda and Sirisena together have 95 MPs. The TNA (Tamil National Alliance) has 16 members and the JVP (Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna) has 6 members.
This is going to be a real test for both Mahinda and Ranil when parliament meets on 16th November. The JVP has already announced that they would not support either side in this conflict. The TNA so far has not taken a clear stand but finally it is most likely they will give their support to defend Ranil.
In this scenario, if, for argument’s sake, Mahinda cannot get a majority with 113 in the parliament this can lead to a very volatile and unstable situation in the country. He will mobilise his supporters to come to the streets and that can lead to a semi-civil war situation between the two forces.
This is obviously going to be the last chance for Mahinda and it can boomerang against him as well. So it would be wrong to underestimate Mahinda: he will do everything possible to consolidate his power. Already we can see his supporters forcibly take over the many key government institutions, like all the state media, and attacking the people opposing him. In this situation, already one person was killed inside the Ceylon Petroleum Corporation. There can be more incidents between now and 16th of November. It cannot be ruled out that some MPs will be arrested including Ranil himself, if Mahinda and Sirisena feel that they cannot obtain a majority in parliament. On the other hand, there are campaigns which have started for the release of all the Sri Lankan Army “war heroes” who are in custody for their murderous actions during the recent civil war and the release of the imprisoned ultra-reactionary Buddhist monk, Gannasara. This is an indication of the nature of a future government under Rajapaksa.
In this crucial situation, socialists have to appeal to all trade unions and working people, as a whole, to take an independent stand against both rotten capitalist camps and to put forward a list of demands on issues faced by the working class and poor masses and all the oppressed people, including the Tamils. It is clear that there is no way out for the poor masses in Sri Lanka within the bankrupt capitalist system, and there is a great need to fight to build a broader mass working class party to prepare a long term strategy to establish a workers’ government.