Sri Lanka’s evolving presidency: Sirisena Wins Round Two in Political Battle

Sri Lanka’s President Maithripala Sirisena who secured the presidency last January 8th emerged victorious in the second round of his political battle with his former boss Mahinda Rajapaksa when the coalition of parties that he favored won the parliamentary election held on August 17th. Sirisena was a senior member of the cabinet under president Rajapaksa until he crossed over to the opposition on November 21st 2014 to contest Rajapaksa for the presidency. The winning coalition led by Prime Minister Ranil Wickramasinghe (United National Party – UNP) won 106 seats in the 225-member parliament. Mahinda Rajapaksa who led the United People Freedom Alliance (UPFA) won 95 seats. The Tamil National Alliance (TNA) that represents the Tamils in the north and east of the country won 16 seats and the People’s Liberation Front that has a following in the Sinhalese urban areas won six.

This year’s parliamentary election, was the 15th since the first one held in 1947.  Starting with the second held in 1952 every election has been a battle for power between the two main parties, the right-of-center UNP and the left-of-center Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP). From 1947 UNP and its allies have won eight of the elections and ruled the country for a total of 33 years and the SLFP and its allies have won seven elections and ruled the country for 34 years. In principle the battle lines were the same for the August 17th election. But there were some very crucial differences between this election and those in the past.

Sirisena won the January 8th presidential election polling 6.2 million votes to Rajapaksa’s 5.8 million. On assuming the presidency Sirisena claimed the leadership of the UPFA and SLFP with strong support from the former president Chandrika Kumaratunga (1994-2005) who was elected twice to that office on the SLFP ticket. Rajapaksa reluctantly conceded to Sirisena’s demand. Many expected Rajapaksa to retire from politics. But he decided, with the strong backing of his loyalists, to contest the parliamentary election in the hope of becoming the prime minister. He became the de facto leader of the UPFA that was an alliance of left-of-center parties dominated by the SLFP. Sirisena who had little choice in the matter reluctantly let Rajapaksa get the UPFA nomination.

The office of prime minister did not carry much clout after the executive presidency was established in 1978. The office was further devalued after Rajapaksa successfully steered the 18th amendment to the Constitution in 2010. However, the 19th amendment to the Constitution passed in April 2015 under Sirisena clipped some of the powers of the executive presidency that also made the office of prime minister more powerful. Moreover, had Rajapaksa won there was a real possibility that he would have been able to maneuver parliament and make Sirisena practically powerless. Thus the parliamentary election virtually became a replay of the January election but with one difference. This time Rajapaksa was fighting his traditional foe Ranil Wickramasinghe for the premiership. The latter won the election. In January Rajapaksa and his UPFA polled 5.4m votes in the eighteen predominantly Sinhalese-Buddhist districts outside the north and east. In August that vote dropped by 900,000 to 4.5m. In the same districts Sirisena polled 5.2m in January and the UNP and its allies polled 4.8m in August. The UNP lead of 300,000 votes in August made a crucial difference to the final result of the parliamentary election for two reasons. First, because under the Sri Lankan parliamentary election law in each of the 22 electoral districts the winning party gets a “bonus” seat. In August UNP won nine bonus seats in the “south” to UPFA’s eight. In the five districts in the north and east UNP won two out of the five available bonus seats, the Tamil National Alliance (TNA) three and the UPFA none. Second, 29 seats are allocated from a “List” submitted by each party in proportion to the overall number polled and the UNP won 13 to UPFA’s 12.

President Sirisena used his power of office as well as his power as the president of the SLFP to thwart Rajapaksa’s attempt at a comeback. First, on July 14th soon after nominations for the elections he issued an official statement saying that he would remain “impartial” during the campaign but called upon the voters to “elect those best suited to ‘march forward with the Jan. 8 mandate.’ He also declared that he would not appoint Rajapaksa as prime minister even if the SLFP-led UPFA were to win the election.

Second, on August 13th, just four days before the poll, Sirisena wrote a four-page letter to Rajapaksa reiterating that he (Rajapaksa) would not be appointed prime minister even if the UPFA were to win the election. Sirisena noted that there were several other senior members of the party that qualified for the job.

Third, on the 14th of August, three day prior to the poll two Sirisena loyalist won a court order that effectively sacked the general secretaries of the SLFP and UPFA. The holders of these two positions have the power to deal with Sri Lanka’s elections commissioner on all matters pertaining to the election. With the court order in place Sirisena appointed two of his loyalists to fill the two vacancies. This gave Sirisena a free hand to, among other things, fill the national list slots of the UPFA with individuals who would back him in parliament. Of the 12 as many as five were defeated UPFA candidates considered to be Sirisena loyalists. Sirisena chose to ignore the criticism that it was an undemocratic act to appoint individuals that the electorate rejected.

Two weeks have passed since the parliamentary election. Sirisena and Wickramasinghe have announced that a “National Government” will be formed with the UNP and the SLFP as the principal constituent parties. Sirisena has sworn in Wickramasinghe as the Prime Minister. Three other members of the cabinet – Foreign Affairs, Justice and Resettlement – were also sworn in to facilitate the visit of US Assistant Secretary of State for South and Central Asian Affairs Nisha Desai Biswal in late August.

The UNP and SLFP have agreed that in principle the former will have a few more portfolios than the latter because the UNP got more seats in parliament. The constitution allows for only a maximum of 30 cabinet positions if a single party forms the government. However, since the proposed government is a coalition more portfolios can be created but only with the approval of parliament. Media reports suggest that the actual number would be as high as 45 to 50 for which parliamentary approval would be obtained when it meets on September 1. In addition to cabinet ministries the government is expected to have more than fifty deputy misters and ministers of state.

A matter that still remains unresolved is the status of the official opposition and the party that would be entitled to claim the position of leader of the opposition. Rajapaksa loyalists in the UPFA claim that the position rightly belongs to the faction of the UPFA that chooses to sit on opposition benches. It is not clear whether Rajapaksa would choose to be the Leader of the Opposition. Rajapaksa loyalists fear that President Sirisena may appoint a person of his choice to the post. The TNA is also staking a claim to be considered as the main opposition party on the grounds that some of the MPs who were elected on the UPFA ticket have joined the government so that as a party the latter can no longer claim to be a legitimate opposition.

In sum Sri Lanka’s executive presidency has entered a new phase in its evolution. In the first phase from 1978 to 2014 it was seen as a powerful office that was evolving in a semi-authoritarian direction undermining democracy and good governance. Rajapaksa made it more so by arming the office with additional powers using the 18th amendment to the constitution. From January 8th President Sirisena and Prime Minister Ranil Wickramasinghe have amicably governed the country sharing power. Sirisena and Wickramasinghe passed the 19th amendment that clipped the powers of the presidency and made way for the establishment of a Constitutional Council and an array of “independent” commissions to help govern the country. These are due to be established in the coming few months. If they function as they are intended to, governance in Sri Lanka is bound to improve and democracy strengthen.

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