The political crisis in Sri Lanka has abated with the reinstatement of Ranil Wickremesinghe as prime minister by President Maithripala Sirisena. Profound disagreements between the two men prompted Sirisena to dismiss Wickremesinghe seven weeks ago, a move that triggered a parliamentary revolt and intervention by the Supreme Court. To the judiciary’s credit, it acted independently of the executive; to the president’s credit, he accepted the adverse ruling. The return of Wickremesinghe to office is only a palliative, however. The president and the prime minister still seem to be moving apart and domestic political tensions — which create opportunities for meddling for outsiders — will intensify.
Sirisena and Wickremesinghe formed a coalition in 2015. Sirisena was then health minister in the Cabinet of Mahinda Rajapaksa, the controversial nationalist president whose popularity rested on his victory in the civil war that had devastated Sri Lanka for over two decades. He split with Rajapaksa and ran against him in the presidential vote that year, defeating him and installing Wickremesinghe as prime minister.
They soon grew apart, disagreeing over economic policy and Wickremesinghe’s readiness to investigate atrocities committed during the 26-year civil war. Sirisena felt that the government should look at misdeeds committed by both sides during the conflict, and charged that Wickremesinghe was only investigating those perpetrated by the government.
The situation came to a head nearly two months ago, when Sirisena dismissed Wickremesinghe, alleging that he failed to investigate a plot to assassinate the president, that he mismanaged the economy, that he ignored insider trader in a government bond issue by a friend of his and that he alienated Buddhist monks — in a predominately Buddhist country — by having them arrested for keeping unlicensed captive elephants at temples. Sirisena then installed Rajapaksa as prime minister. Wickremesinghe called the move “blatantly illegal, unconstitutional and opportunistic.”
Both parliament and the courts agreed with Wickremesinghe. Lawmakers twice rejected the Rajapaksa appointment — during one ballot the parliament descended into brawling — and voted to reinstate the former prime minister. The Supreme Court ruled that Sirisena’s move to dissolve parliament and call new elections was unconstitutional. Parliament then froze spending by the prime minister and his Cabinet. The Court of Appeal and the Supreme Court both ruled that the Rajapaksa government was illegal and suspended it. Without a government, there was a danger that no budget would be passed, and that prospect, which included the potential default on $1 billion in foreign debt in January, prompted Rajapaksa to step down and Sirisena to reappoint Wickremesinghe last weekend.
That solution will likely be short-lived. After swearing in the prime minister, Sirisena accused him of corruption and indicated that the lull was only a cease-fire and not a genuine peace. The Supreme Court had ruled that, according to the constitution, the president could only suspend parliament if two-thirds of the body assents, or if 4½ years passed since the last election. The latter condition will be met in early 2020 and all sides are now preparing for a vote.
The president’s readiness to accept the adverse Supreme Court ruling and the multiple losses in the parliament speaks well of Sri Lanka’s democracy. Many strongmen would have disregarded both — or attempted to manipulate them — instead of accepting them as legitimate. The standoff did not turn violent despite one death in the first days of the crisis. Sri Lanka’s political institutions proved both strong and resilient.
Wickremesinghe should not take the return to power as validation of his agenda. He should be even-handed in his efforts to prosecute war crimes. He must do more to promote national reconciliation and honor his economic promises. He must give voters a real reason to back him in the next elections; he cannot afford to base his appeal solely on opposition to Rajapaksa.
Japan should applaud the victory of the rule of law and the strength of Sri Lankan democracy. Tokyo can showcase Sri Lanka as an example of its vision of a “Free and Open Indo-Pacific.” One of the most powerful objections to the Rajapaksa government was its readiness to take on excessive debt in return for Chinese loans (some of which was allegedly diverted into the pockets of government officials) and the growing support for Beijing by the Colombo government.
The Japanese government should hold up Sri Lanka as an example of how its strategy to engage the region offers advantages to all who share it. That also obliges Tokyo to do more to both support the Wickremesinghe government and encourage it to honor its promises to the Sri Lankan people.