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Constitutional Crisis in Sri Lanka and its Impact on Indo-Pacific Diplomacy

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Authors: Raghav Pandey & Adithya Anil Variath

The neologism – Constitutional coup, entered into the foray ofrealpolitik with President Maithripala Sirisena sacking his ally and incumbent Prime Minister Wickremesinghe and appointing former president Mahinda Rajapaksa, persona non grata with the regime as the new Prime Minister. The current capture of power has again put the Indian Ocean diplomacy in the international foreground following pandemonium in Maldives island over its recent presidential election. Sri Lanka has again dived into a stalemate menacing its democratic values and political stability.  The current crisis was unanticipated and serendipitous given the political realities of the nation, the verdict in the last parliamentary elections and the amended powers of the President under the Constitution of the country.

This is not the first time that a President according to his whims and fancies has ousted Wickremesinghe from his office. A similar scenario arose in 2004, the then head of state sacked him from his responsibilities and called for snap elections in the mid-term. Eventually, after winning the top post for the third time in August 2015, Wickremesinghe passed a Constitutional amendment to amend the Constitution to remove the President’s power to sack Prime Ministers to prevent a repeat of his earlier unceremonious ouster. 72 – year- old Mahindra Rajapaksa, considered as a war hero among the supporters was previously elected as the President from 2005 to 2015. But during Rajapaksa’s period of misgovernance, Sri Lanka warranted international criticism from economies worldwide and intergovernmental bodies for obstructing investigations into allegations of war crimes perpetrated and executed by the military officials against Tamil civilians.

A 2011 United Nation’s Report of the Secretary-General’s Panel of Experts on Accountability in Sri Lanka estimated that as many as 40,000 Tamils may have been killed in the endmost months of the war alone. The panel on the basis of shreds of evidence inculpated the Tamil Tigers of committing atrocities against women, including recruiting child soldiers. During Rajapaksa’s regime, he concurrently was in charge as President and finance minister, among other cabinet positions, while his family members served as the defence secretary and ministries dealing with economy and ports. This political power and nepotism controlled about 80 per cent of the total national budget and was accused of corruption and major human rights abuses. The voice of dissent, both political opponents and investigative journalists critical of their governance often disappeared.

Sirisena as a Cabinet ranked Minister handled the Ministry of Health and Defence, ante defecting the party to join then Opposition in 2014. After which Sirisena loyalists in the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) formed a coalition with the United National Party (UNP), led by Ranil Wickremesinghe. He was voted into power in January 2015, relying on the promises of greater transparency and administrative accountability, protecting human rights and a crackdown on corruption and nepotism.  The fragile coalition government kickstarted an ambitious reform package, including measures to introduce constitutional and electoral reform. The Government also sent strong signals to international community to showcase its creditability and intention to protect and promote human rights by co-sponsoring a UN resolution in 2015 on promoting reconciliation, accountability and human rights that required them to make concrete commitments on transitional justice, following the end of Sri Lanka’s nearly three-decade-long civil war in 2009. But these assertive projects began to crumble due to inefficiency and social divisions along the lines of ethnicity and religion. In the recent local government elections, Rajapaksa’s Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP), a breakaway faction of the SLFP consisting of Rajapaksa and his followers accumulated over 44% of the vote.

The United People’s Freedom Alliance (UPFA), headed by President Maithripala Sirisena won just over 8%. While the faction of United National Party (UNP), led by Ranil Wickremesinghe attracted a substantial voter base, the elections were seen as a bone breaker to the coalition government. Concatenation of Cabinet reshuffles and power successions led to a no-confidence motion levelled against Prime Minister Wickremesinghe in April 2018.  Before suspending the elected Government, Sirisena also accused the UNP faction of not taking cognizance of an alleged murder conspiracy to assassinate him and former top Defence Secretary Gotabhaya Rajapaksa, brother of Mahinda Rajapaksa.

Ousted Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe, making a powerful statement from Temple Trees, addressed the people as “the elected Prime Minister of the democratic republic of Sri Lanka under the powers guided by Article (42) of the Constitution and the 19th Amendment. I trounced the no-confidence motion brought against me and relish a clear majority in Parliament. I shall remain Prime Minister for as long as I enjoy a majority in Parliament and support of people.”  Wickremesinghe’s faction of UNP has been counting on the constitutional principle of the 19th amendment to the Constitution, adopted with the guidance of President Sirisena in April 2015, which empowers the President to appoint a new prime minister, but not the power to remove one. Article 46 (2) after the infamous 19th Amendment to the Constitution, reads as; the Prime Minister continues to hold office, throughout the period during which the Cabinet of Ministers continues to function under the provisions of the Constitution, unless he: (a) resigns by writing or, (b) ceases to be a Member of Parliament. Meanwhile, there is high speculation that Sirisena and Rajapaksa have already entered into a secret deal which will empower Sirisena to contest the upcoming 2020 presidential elections against the UNP with the full cooperation of SLPP.

Wickremesinghe’s UNP and other political as well as non-political groups challenged the President’s decision in the Supreme Court, terming it unconstitutional. UNP’s main argument was based on the interpretation of Article 70 (1) of the Sri Lankan Constitution. The petitioners pointed out that this provision restricts the powers of the President to dissolve Parliament before the end of the four-and-half years out of the five-year term. Sri Lanka’s Supreme Court upheld the arguments raised by the petitioners, that the President’s move did not have the support of two-thirds of the members, which is an essential requirement under the said article. Taking into consideration these constitutional principles, the Supreme Court overturned President Maithripala Sirisena’s controversial decision to dissolve the Parliament and stayed the preparations for snap polls declared to be held on 5 January 2019. Immediately after the Court’s verdict, Speaker Karu Jayasuriya summoned a Parliamentary session on 14 November 2018, during which the Parliament passed the non-confidence motion against the recently appointed government led by Prime Minister Rajapaksa with the backing of 122 of the 225 lawmakers in a voice vote, followed by a signed document. But, President Sirisena in an official letter addressed to the Speaker said he could not accept the non-confidence motion as it appeared to have ignored the Constitution, parliamentary procedure and constitutional tradition.

In an unprecedented move, as a temporary solution, the political parties in Sri Lanka agreed to form a select committee to conduct parliamentary affairs amid the constitutional crisis. Sri Lanka’s Parliament which was convened yesterday for a third-floor test was adjourned just ten minutes after its commencement as the parliamentarians were unable to decide on the members of the committee. The Sri Lankan lawmakers have also submitted a motion which shall be out into vote on November 29, seeking the suspension of state funds allocated to the present illegitimate government. The current constitutional and political dilemma has hit the economy. On Monday, the Sri Lankan rupee fell to a record low of 177.20 per dollar and the foreign investors have pulled out more than 30 billion rupees ($169.5 million) since the decision of the Supreme Court.Sri Lanka’s politico-economic condition is already under duress with Forex reserves slithering, pressuring the local currency vis-à-vis economic problems in global emerging markets and weakening international investor confidence.

A stable Sri Lankan democracy is in the political, social and economic interests of New Delhi to further strengthen its blue water diplomacy.  Taking into consideration the tenets of Indian Ocean diplomacy, the current political scenario is a real gift to China, during Rajapaksa’s stint, Sri Lanka moved closer to China. While Wickremesinghe practiced a liberal approach to balance relations with India and China, Rajapaksa supports and endorses a tilted policy to accept Chinese money even in the face of unreasonable terms. Colombo is a real victim here due to the repercussions of this inarticulate economic policy, as it was forced to sell strategic assets to Beijing, including the Hambantota port, when it failed to meet liabilities. The United States has been vocal against China’s “debt trap diplomacy” and singled out Sri Lanka, contending the Chinese-built seaport will preferably become a forward military base for China’s growing blue-water navy to exert dominance in the region.

Analysing the present economic situation, it is clear that there is an urgent need of foreign capital and international financial aid and Rajapaksa’s government will most likely accelerate more Chinese investments in the region. With this tapping of Chinese resources and monetary aid, other major foreign players operating in the island nation such as India and Japan are likely to experience unmitigated economic and political risks.  A recent election in the Maldives was a diplomatic win for India as the region witnessed the previous China funded government lose power to a pro-democracy party, attracting the island closer to New Delhi. The current political discourse in Sri Lanka would further facilitate the world’s second-largest economy steal a diplomatic victory against India as the two nuclear superpowers battle for supremacy in the Indian Ocean region.

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South Asia

When Politics turns Personal; The Toxic Allegations & Accusations become a Norm

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Image source: timeofpakistan.com

There is something happening beneath this political turmoil which is NOT looking good!!

Whenever Political landscape turns into a Personal battleground, defeats become unacceptable. These past few days are a perfect case study to see that how Political elite in Pakistan has done whatever it took it to stay in power. In this power grab scenario, there could be numerous losses including the integrity of institutions. We have unfortunately entered into a very dangerous phase, where some political stakeholders have put all stakes at risk, where they have stretched their limits beyond a constitutional limit, all to gather mass support, all to stay in power and avoid defeat. Is it a threat of losing power? Is it a double game? Is it a practical hybrid war we are fighting?  Whatever it is, it doesn’t seem to be good. All is at stake, all is at risk and all is toxic.

As if the political temperature was not noxious enough, Shireen Mazari Saga took place. Once again, accusations, allegations and assumptions started pouring in against the state institutions. Soon after her arrest, her daughter, a lawyer herself Imaan Zainab Mazari alleged that her mother was beaten by male police officers during the arrest. But few minutes later, a video clip surfaced that showed clearly that her mother was arrested by Female Police officers in broad daylight and as per the law. Lie number 1 of the daughter stood exposed. Within moments, without any cogent evidence the lady, known for many controversies in the past targeted state institution for such an act, although the anti-corruption already had taken responsibility of her arrest.

Abuse of power can never be tolerated, regardless of who it targets or from where it emanates. This mantra is true and everyone has an equal belief on it but let’s take a deep dive to see that how politics turned dirty in this case, how blame game took place and how this entire episode was used as a tool to churn propaganda against Army leadership and Armed Forces.

1. The anti-corruption police had arrested Shireen Mazari and she herself accepted that Prime Minister and Interior minister were responsible for my arrest. But the mother daughter nexus brazenly started blaming institutions without any solid evidence. Shouldn’t there be an inquiry on this too?

2. PTI was always of the opinion that why courts were opened mid night to send IK packing while he wasn’t listening to anyone however when same court gave a verdict in favor of PTI ex minister, late night, it was celebrated and much appreciated by Shireen Mazari & IK who have been spearheading anti judicial tirade until recently. Isn’t it blatant hypocrisy? Judicial inquiry has been ordered by the Court which is a positive sign, but the serious allegations which Mazari nexus have raised must also be inquired during this newly formed judicial inquiry. Should the Judiciary not question them on hurling these baseless allegations?

3. The present government, whose Police itself arrested Shireen Mazari disowned this attempt. Attorney General displayed his ignorance about the matter in front of the court. So, somehow the government created this impression in the public eye that they are not to be blamed for the arrest of Shireen Mazari. Was it a double game? Or a deliberate effort to discredit institutions?

Pakistan is already facing serious economic downfall, political uncertainty and civil strife. PTI has also announced Long March to Islamabad on 25th May which is likely to further exacerbate already fragile political and economic instability. It has become quite evident now for achieving petty political ends, our political elite has no serious resolve to address the crisis confronting the country. Country is being deliberately pushed to limits of economic and political dead end. The political immaturity and lack of vision to handle the crisis situation is also hurting the repute of institutions amidst internal political wrangling. If political leadership doesn’t come to grips of the critical situation prevailing which is likely to aggravate further in coming days, people of Pakistan in particular and the country in general are likely to suffer unprecedented damage. Political elite must put its acts together and steer the country out of prevalent political and economic crisis by showing sagacity and political wisdom until it’s too late.

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South Asia

Accusations to Acknowledgement: The Battle of Article 63 A

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The weather is heating up. As the May is ending, Political temperatures are soaring. The fate regarding the country’s political and economic stability will be measured in the upcoming days. Earlier, PDM built momentum by taking on institutions. Maryam Nawaz raised the temperature by targeting key personalities and institutions. Allegations were bursting against the institutions in all dimensions. Today, we witness reversal of roles. Accusations have been outflowing in every Jalsa by PTI. But now suddenly, the “accusations” turned into “acknowledgment”. “Complaints” started transforming into “Compliments”. Is it the change of narrative? Is it another U-turn? Or is it the restoration of confidence in the institutions? Where will this chaos end?

The Supreme Court’s “decision” or as they say “opinion” or “binding” on Article 63 A has raised some pertinent questions on the status of CM Punjab election? In the interpretation of Article 63 A of the constitution, the Supreme court categorically condemns the practice of horse trading by calling it “a cancer afflicting the body politic”. Supreme Court in its decision of 3-2 rejected the vote count of these dissident members against the party directives. So the future of the Chief Executive of Punjab is now under threat because it is contrary to what happened in National Assembly. The political instability continues and the situation is messy.

In light of this verdict, Hamza has a support of 172 MPAs in Punjab assembly but at the same time, he also has 4 dissenting members which draws the figure to 168. Now further moving ahead, PTI and alliance also has a collective figure of 168 votes minus 21 dissenting members. The situation here in Punjab is way too complex now. A support of 186 members is required for a clear majority in Punjab assembly to formulate a government. This current Punjab government can either fall through a governor led vote of no confidence or a Supreme court order. The governor even has a right to dissolve the assembly with his discretionary powers according to Article 112 (2) of the constitution. Supreme Court has already made its decision on cross voting against Party fiat.  Now legal experts are interpreting the decision in their own dictionaries. What will happen in Punjab? What will happen on the federal level? Will there be an election call? If so, what will be the care taker setup? Will there be a fresh mandate? Who will make the hard economic decisions?  Lot needs to be answered in these crucial times.

From “My judges disappointed me” to “Thankyou Supreme Court”, a lot has happened and a lot is ready to take place. Islamabad is full of gossips, interpretations, whispers and predictions these days. There is something seething under this political turmoil. The Red zone is under a lot of pressure whether politically or economically. Pre – Elections, Elections and then Post elections, we have a lot of consequences of a lot of hard decisions. But hard decisions need to be taken. Question is who is ready to make the hard choices? Be Afraid!!

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South Asia

The sizzling “Political Matrix”; What will happen now?

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Politics in Pakistan is unfortunately leaving scars that will fade away not that easily. Islamabad today is wrapped in thick political clouds since past few weeks. These last few weeks have altered all assumptions and calculations in the national political matrix.  While the political landscape today is sizzling with intensity, aggression and strain the economy is shattering every day.  Who is to blame for? What will happen now? And will sanity prevail?

The entire edifice of the “conspiracy mantra” which even made PTI commit violation of the constitution stands demolished today. It was one of the worst advices Imran khan could ever get from his party among the list of many others. Sadly he made his entire politics captive to this conspiracy myth.  But today no one questions them on the impact it had on our foreign policy. US today feels betrayed, Saudis not ready to give aid, Chinese worried about their stakes and it continues.  So diplomatically this conspiracy mantra has damaged Pakistan like anything.

Imran Khan’s followers see nothing wrong in what he says and what he does. They absolutely reject all the facts, all the logics and embrace the rhetoric which is fuelling more today with a greater intensity. Imran khan is leading this campaign more aggressively. Khan very well knows that bringing large crowds to Islamabad will have an impact only if there is some kind of aggression.  The leaders on different occasions already hinted towards an aggressive March. He very well realizes that the figure of 2.5 Million is unrealistic but keeping in view the size of Islamabad, 0.1 Million crowd will even be perceived as a bigger crowd. So can he force the early elections at this stage? How will the government react to it? For instance let’s accept this narrative that the pressure of crowd aids PTI in getting an early election call and PTI wins it. So now what next? How will you deal with the mighty US? The economy is already sinking. You need aid to feed it but no one is providing you that. Then how will you stop dollar from going above 200? How will you provide relief from the soaring fuel prices when you won’t have money for a subsidy even? Forget about one lakh jobs and 50 lakh houses.

From the past few weeks we haven’t heard any PTI leader telling any economic plan or any diplomatic plan to revive relations. How will you deal with the IFI’s, World Bank & IMF when they’re all US controlled and as per your narrative you won’t accept “Amreeka ki Ghulami” or USA’s dictatorship.

So now what options the present regime has? The government would of course like to stop this building dangerous momentum of “Azadi March”. They would not like any big clash in Islamabad which results in bigger mess and chaos. The PDM government also has a much bigger fish to deal with, the same sinking economy. They came into power with this narrative to fix economy as former Premiere was unable to do it.  The key cabinet members made more than two different official visits.  The instructions are coming from London today as a decisive power so who will run the government? Who will run the system? Will the IMF aid? What will be the upcoming budget about? This upcoming budget is a bigger risk for this government along with an already announced to Long march call. Khan has already played a dangerous narrative especially with the blame of another conspiracy being made about his Life.   

The stakes, the narrative and the politics of every party is at risk today.  But above that, Pakistan is at risk. The dread is in the air. The end of May will be heated ferociously in Islamabad, whether politically or meteorologically.

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