Sri Lankan MPs attend a meeting with parliamentary Speaker Karu Jayasuriya at the Parliament Building in Colombo. Photo: AFP/Lakruwan Wanniarachchi
Sri Lankan MPs attend a meeting with parliamentary Speaker Karu Jayasuriya at the Parliament Building in Colombo. Photo: AFP/Lakruwan Wanniarachchi

Sri Lanka was thrown into chaos when President Maithripala Sirisena dissolved parliament on November 9. He called for a general election in January 2019 in an unprecedented move that will likely plunge the country deeper into a constitutional crisis.

Parliament’s dissolution, anticipated and mocked by many, was announced in an official gazette notification signed by Sirisena.

But on Monday, Sri Lanka’s main parties challenged the move in the Supreme Court. Ousted Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe’s United National Party (UNP), the main opposition Tamil National Alliance (TNA) and the People’s Liberation Front were among the 10 groups that filed the action in the nation’s highest court, as reported by NDTV.

As per the provisions set forth in the Constitution, Sirisena has moved to dissolve parliament and has set out plans to summon the new parliament to meet on January 17, 2019. Accordingly, the Extraordinary Gazette 2096/70 further announced January 5, 2019 as the date for a new election to elect the members of parliament.

Power struggle

The dissolution comes after an intense power struggle between the Sirisena-led camp, which appointed former president Mahinda Rajapaksa as prime minister following the ousting of the coalition government premier Ranil Wickremesinghe.

The last two weeks of the ongoing crisis saw defections and reverse crossovers of parliamentarians in bids by various factions to gain majority power.

The president further discontinued parliament following the initiation of the crisis, in an alleged move to prevent Wickremesinghe from contesting the decision in the legislature.

Subsequently, Sirisena agreed to reconvene parliament on November 14, where the speaker of the house was expected to call in a majority test to legitimize the move. However, following the dissolution, this will not take place.

Following an informal meeting of party leaders of the parliament, Speaker Karu Jayasuriya announced on November 7 that existing standing orders of the parliament should be suspended once it is reconvened, and an opportunity must be provided for a majority opinion of the house on the ability to form a stable government.

A statement issued by the speaker’s office reported that the parliamentary agenda of November 14 included the traditional opening statement of the president, following which the day’s session would conclude.

However, the speaker, upon the request of 16 parliamentarians,  announced his decision to suspend the existing standing order following the president’s opening remarks in order to hold the majority vote.

Majority vote

A majority vote in the house will determine the support and command held by the opposing factions: the Maithripala Sirisena-Mahinda Rajapaksa faction and the pro-Ranil Wickremesinghe faction.
Meanwhile, Wickremesinghe and his UNP have refused to move out of the official residence of the prime minister in the heart of the capital, Colombo.

Former strongman of the coalition government, Rajitha Senaratne, addressing the media on Friday, noted that even though the dissolution was illegal and unconstitutional, the party would face the upcoming election.

He said the president violated the constitution by appointing Rajapaksa as the prime minister and had violated it a second time with the dissolution of parliament.

Independent legal experts explained to Asia Times that the parliament could only be dissolved in early 2020, which would be four-and-half-years from the first sitting of the body, as set forth in the 19th amendment of the constitution. The other legal alternative would be to hold a referendum, or with the consent of two-thirds of the parliament; none of which occurred in reality.

Despite parliamentarians supporting the president’s decision, having claimed that there are constitutional provisions to support his move, it is not immediately clear, given the aforementioned views of legal experts.

Cabinet spokesperson and Minister of Ports and Shipping Mahinda Samarasinghe told Asia Times that the move was within the existing legal framework and those with opposing views can challenge it in court.

“It was President Sirisena’s opinion that he had the powers to dissolve the parliament, prior to (the) end of the term. It was therefore carried out constitutionally. If anyone seeks to oppose that, they can challenge it in courts,” he said.

The three parties which have an absolute majority in the assembly have now asked the Supreme Court to declare the dissolution of parliament by the president as illegal.

‘Threat to public finances’

Meanwhile, questions have been raised with regards to the national budget that was scheduled to be announced earlier this month.
The country’s budget for 2019, which will no longer be presented in parliament, threatens public finances and the ability to hold elections.

In response, Government Spokesperson Samarasinghe noted that a vote on the accounts will be announced by Sirisena for a duration of three months, commencing from January.

“The matter of the budget will be addressed through the Vote on Account which will be authorized by the president in the coming days. He is of the view that the Vote on Account can provide the necessary allocation of funds for the limited duration of three months, starting from January when we need money.”