Restoration of political sanity

New space has emerged for de-escalating Sri Lanka’s political crisis with the timely and judicious intervention by the Sri Lankan Supreme Court. Following the two rulings made by the top court, last Thursday and Friday, Ranil Wickremesinghe — the Prime Minister who was sacked on October 26 by Maithripala Sirisena, Sri Lanka’s President — was again sworn in on Sunday as the new Prime Minister. The new cabinet is scheduled to be sworn-in today, Monday. With the Wickremesinghe-led United National Front (UNF) now back in power, the 50-day long tenure of Mahinda Rajapaksa, who replaced Mr. Wickremesinghe as the Prime Minister, has also come to an abrupt end. Mr. Rajapaksa, who was appointed on October 26, could not properly function as his appointment was legally challenged by the Wickremesinghe camp. Mr. Sirisena’s order, on November 9, to dissolve Parliament was also legally challenged, leading to a situation where Sri Lanka was without an effective government for six weeks. Now, as a result of judicial intervention, Sri Lanka has a new government that enjoys constitutional validity. Thus almost seven weeks of unprecedented political turmoil and governance vacuum have come to an end, at least for the moment. Supreme Court’s role The huge significance of the Supreme Court’s role in restoring constitutional governance for Sri Lanka’s democracy warrants no exaggeration. When Mr. Sirisena changed the government on October 26, and dissolved Parliament some time after, there were serious doubts about the constitutionality of his shocking and sudden actions. Under the reformed presidential system in Sri Lanka with the 19th Amendment to the Constitution, the President’s powers over the Prime Minister, the cabinet and Parliament are severely restricted. Due to conflicts that developed within the coalition government that was jointly led by Mr. Sirisena and Mr. Wickremesinghe, Mr. Sirisena seemed to have disregarded the constitutional limits of his legitimate authority. It is his acts of constitutional transgression that the Supreme Court has now reversed and corrected. The most significant feature of the Supreme Court’s invalidation of three major political decisions made by Mr. Sirisena is the re-emergence of the judiciary with a clear sense of institutional autonomy and independence. This is all the more important given the thoroughly negative political consequences a judicial endorsement of the President’s actions would have carried. The highest court of the country asserted itself against the arbitrary and capricious exercise of constitutional authority by the head of the executive and refused to be submissive to the executive. It also protected the institutional autonomy of the legislature and ensured the constitutional protection to the Prime Minister and the Cabinet. In doing so, Sri Lanka’s Supreme Court ultimately proved itself to be a reliable arbiter of disputes that have the potential to endanger democracy and the freedom and rights of the country’s citizens. In that sense, the two decisions by the Supreme Court last week are not only landmark judgments but are also future-defining judicial verdicts. Hereafter, Sri Lanka’s political leaders or their random legal advisers, both official and unofficial, cannot take for granted the limits of political power as set out in the Constitution. Thus, Mr. Sirisena’s loss is in fact a gain for Sri Lanka’s democracy and its freedom-loving citizen.

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