Sri Lanka’s Parliament will be the cynosure of all eyes when it is reconvened next Wednesday, November 14 as the country grapples with a constitutional riddle triggered by the appointment of Mahinda Rajapaksa as Prime Minister of a new government by President Maithripala Sirisena.

The current political storm began when, in a surprise move, President Sirisena swore in Rajapaksa as Prime Minister in a ceremony that was conducted without much fanfare on Friday, October 26. At the same time, President Sirisena informed Ranil Wickremesinghe that he had been relieved of his duties.

President Sirisena informed Wickremesinghe that he has acted in accordance with Article 42(4) of the Constitution which 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”.

Removal of the Prime Minister

Wickremesinghe however disputes this and maintains that he is still the Prime Minister of the country, arguing that the Constitution, as amended by the 19th Amendment, does not have provisions for the removal of the Prime Minister by the President, unless through a vote of no confidence in Parliament.

Subsequently political developments have moved at a brisk pace, overshadowing the constitutional debate over the Premiership. Much of it was triggered by President Sirisena also moving to prorogue Parliament on Saturday, October 27, a day after Rajapaksa was sworn in as the new Prime Minister.

The President’s position has been that, with the removal of Wickremesinghe from office, the Cabinet that existed at the time ceased to function. Accordingly, several new Cabinet ministers were sworn in. Arguably the most significant portfolio was the Finance Ministry, assigned to Mahinda Rajapaksa.

Twelve ministers were sworn initially. Among those who were sworn in were two ministers from the United National Party (UNP): Vasantha Senanayake was sworn in as Minister of Tourism and Wildlife while Wijeyadasa Rajapakshe was sworn in as Minister of Education and Higher Education.

By then, two other UNP parliamentarians, Vadivel Suresh and Ananda Aluthgamage had broken ranks with the UNP. They were appointed as State Minister of Plantation Industries and Deputy Minister of Tourism and Wildlife respectively in an indication that more crossovers were pending.

On October 30, Ratnapura District UNP parliamentarian, Dunesh Gankanda was sworn in as the State Minister of Environment. Minutes prior to his swearing in, Gankanda was on social media, hailing the UNP’s rally protesting Wickremesinghe’s removal which was taking place at Kollupitiya in Colombo.

A day later on November 1, two more Cabinet ministers and five state ministers were sworn in. Significantly, Duminda Dissanayake was sworn in as Minister of Irrigation, Water resources and Disaster Management. Dissanayake is known to have differences with Rajapaksa for many years.

Since then, several others have joined the new government. Among them are S.B. Navinna who was appointed as Minister of Cultural Affairs and Regional Development and Tamil National Alliance (TNA) MP S. Viyalendiran who assumed duties as Deputy Minister of Regional Development.

Joint Opposition

On Sunday, the first ministers from the Joint Opposition (JO), apart from Rajapaksa, were sworn in. They were Dinesh Gunewardena, as Minister of Megapolis and Western Development and Vasudeva Nanayakkara, sworn in as Minister of National Integration, Reconciliation and Official Languages.

At the same ceremony, another JO stalwart, Keheliya Rambukwella was sworn in as State Minister of Mass Media and Digital Infrastructure while another UNP parliamentarian, Ashoka Priyantha took oaths as Deputy Minister of Cultural and Internal Affairs and Wayamba Regional Development.

Meanwhile, there has been robust debate about the constitutionality of President Sirisena’s actions in dismissing Wickremesinghe and appointing Rajapaksa as well as his decision to prorogue Parliament where it has been convention- but not a requirement- that it be done in consultation with the Speaker.

The major political parties- the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP), the United National Party and the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) have all held public rallies at Battaramulla, Kollupitiya and Nugegoda respectively presenting their case to the masses. All rallies were quite well attended.

A tense situation arose when former Minister Arjuna Ranatunga visited the Ceylon Petroleum Corporation premises. In the ensuing melee, it is alleged that Ranatunga’s bodyguard opened fire, resulting in a person’s death.

Ranatunga was subsequently arrested and then released on bail. Investigators are now probing the incident and television footage of the incident is being analysed. Fortunately, despite the high intensity political drama, this has been the only serious incident thus far that led to a loss of life.

Reconvening Parliament

Speaker Karu Jayasuriya has held discussions with President Sirisena on reconvening Parliament. Jayasuriya stated that the President advised him that Parliament would be convened on November 7, but since then, a gazette notification to this effect has set the date a week later, on November 14.

Jayasuriya has also issued a statement stating that he was “compelled to accept the status that existed previously until such time that the new political alliance proves their majority in Parliament”. While the UNP and the JVP have hailed this statement, the government called it ‘unconstitutional’.

Jayasuriya’s statement came after parliamentarians from the UNP, JVP and the TNA met him formally and requested that Parliament be reconvened. However, constitutional provisions prevent Jayasuriya from acting arbitrarily and convening Parliament as this power is vested with the President.

Jayasuriya also faces obstacles from with the staff of Parliament itself. Parliament staff led by its Secretary General and Seargent-at-arms have indicated that they are bound by the gazette notification issued by the President and have to make seating arrangements in Parliament accordingly.

There have been other interesting developments in this political saga. UNP parliamentarian Palitha Range Bandara accused the government of attempting to bribe him to join their ranks. Bandara released an audio tape of a conversation with S. B. Dissanayake which has gone viral on social media.

It is clear that there is a numbers game on with both the government and the UNP, now the de facto opposition, scrambling to obtain the support of 113 parliamentarians, the number that would be required to demonstrate a majority in the legislature. Both sides claim they have this number of MPs.

With six days to before Parliament is formally reconvened, there will no doubt be plenty of drama on both sides of the political divide.


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