Sri Lankan President Maithripala Sirisena has dissolved Parliament after it became evident that Mahinda Rajapaksa, who he had appointed Prime Minister two weeks ago, did not enjoy a legislative majority. It is an act of desperation to prevent a likely loss of face for both leaders after Mr. Sirisena’s controversial dismissal of Ranil Wickremesinghe as Prime Minister on October 26. Sri Lanka has been roiled by political uncertainty ever since lawmakers of Mr. Sirisena’s party withdrew support from the ‘national unity government’ to facilitate Mr. Wickremesinghe’s removal and the swearing-in of Mr. Rajapaksa in his place. With many parties questioning the legality of the dismissal, the President suspended Parliament. This was a move to buy Mr. Rajapaksa time to garner support through defections. With around 100 MPs each in the 225-member House, both rival camps claimed they had the majority. But a 15-member alliance of Tamil MPs and six Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna lawmakers refused to support the newly installed regime, and Mr. Rajapaksa’s continuance became untenable. The President had to ask him to face possible defeat in a floor test or call elections as a way out. He has chosen the latter. However, a provision in the Constitution, introduced through the 19th Amendment by the Sirisena-Wickremesinghe administration in 2015, stipulates that the House cannot be dissolved for four and a half years after a parliamentary election, unless two-thirds of its total membership seeks dissolution through a resolution. Mr. Sirisena’s action has come in the face of this restriction.
A fig leaf of constitutionality has been made up, citing Article 33(2)(c), which says the President has the power to summon, prorogue and dissolve Parliament. However, it is difficult to see how a general provision enumerating some powers can override a specific provision elsewhere in the Constitution that expressly limits those powers. It is only a little over three years since the last election, and there is no request from MPs seeking the dissolution of Parliament. The promise held out by the 2015 reforms seems to have vanished with Mr. Sirisena’s actions. Given the manner in which recent constitutional reforms have been undermined, the process of writing a new, inclusive Constitution for the country may no longer inspire much confidence. The Sirisena-Rajapaksa camp has, expectedly, welcomed fresh elections, claiming it would reflect the true will of the people. Free and fair elections are, no doubt, central to a democracy; but when conducted in the wake of the questionable sacking of Parliament, they may be anything but. The Opposition parties are now set to challenge the President’s action. Sri Lanka is at a crossroads where it has to make a crucial choice between democratic consolidation or a retreat to authoritarianism. The judiciary has a crucial task at hand.