Opinion: Appointment of a new PM – Will the curse of Sirisena hit Gota/Sajith?

November 7, 2019 (LBO) – In less than 10 days time, Sri Lanka will have a new President. It is not an understatement that a vast majority of Sri Lankans can not wait for that day. Each major faction is excited about the prospects for their particular candidate. However, all major factions are for the most part excited to see the back of President Maithripala Sirisena and his failed administration.

The lows of President Sirisena’s failed administration are not about a sputtering economy, or a dysfunctional government. Although these are enough to earn him a title as Sri Lanka’s worst President, there is more…sadly much more.

Sri Lanka’s Easter Sunday terror attacks, and the constitutional crisis which preceded and perhaps precipitated them, are one of the lowest points in the history of Sri Lankan governance. The institutional failure that led to the terror attacks is for another article. This one will focus of another aspect which led to the breakdown in national security, President Sirisena’s blatant disrespect of Sri Lanka’s Constitution.

President Sirisena’s illegal removal of Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe, and the institutional breakdowns that resulted from this constitutional impasse, had a detrimental effect on Sri Lanka’s national security. Sirisena’s constitutional violation set off a cascading series of events that led to the exclusion of the PM and other relevant officials from national security information, and undermined the free flow of critical intelligence information. His one man show, disregarding the country’s Parliament had disastrous consequences.

The 19th amendment to Sri Lanka’s Constitution includes provisions which change the powers of the Presidency with regard to Parliament, the Cabinet, and the Prime Minister. The question that the media seems to be asking Presidential candidate Sajith Premadasa on a regular basis is: Who will be the Prime Minister under your Presidency?

The correct answer to that question from one who respects the sanctity of constitutional democracy, is that it is not within the powers of the President to unilaterally make that decision. As constitutional lawyer Viran Corea tweeted recently:

“A new PM can be appointed by any Sri Lankan President before next General Election if:

▪︎Parliament passes a vote of no-confidence in the Government

▪︎A Budget/Statement of Government Policy is rejected by Parliament

▪︎PM ceases to hold office (by death, resignation or otherwise)

▪︎PM ceases to be MP”

So for the next President to appoint a new Prime Minister, other factors out of his or her control need to materialise. He or she can NOT legally just appoint someone. The President can have his favoured choice who he would prefer to appoint as PM, but even if there is a vacancy, the President must appoint the member who commands the confidence of Parliament. The choice of who the President will appoint as the PM does not belong to the President, but rather the Parliament. The President can not refuse to appoint a PM who commands the confidence of the house.

President Maithripala Sirisena was forced to accept this reality and reappoint Ranil Wickremesinghe, although Sirisena almost blew up Sri Lanka’s long standing democracy in the process. Explaining how Sirisena repeatedly defecated on Sri Lanka’s Constitution has been detailed at large in other publications. For those who lived through Sri Lanka’s constitutional crisis, we have seen the effects of this travesty with our own eyes. Maithripala Sirisena will end up as a dark chapter in the the history books, and with just a few days left in his term, there is no point wasting time on this lost soul.

However, what is of crucial importance, is whether Gotabaya Rajapaksa or Sajith Premadasa will be another Maithripala Sirisena with respect to the Constitution. Will they protect and defend it as a sacred scroll, or will they use it as toilet paper? As of today we are still very uncertain which way they will go.

Sajith Premadasa has seemingly been the worst offender in terms of political rhetoric. He has dithered several times on the question of who will be the next Prime Minister. He has never stated that it is not his constitutional prerogative to make the decision. He has never publicly deferred to the power of Parliament with regard to appointment of the Prime Minister, but rather embraced appointing authority as his constitutional prerogative.

Just today Sajith Premadasa has made headlines with a statement saying: “As soon as I’m appointed President, a new Prime Minister who commands the confidence of Parliament will also be appointed.” This statement appears to be a broadside against the 19th amendment provisions that deal with the appointment of a new Prime Minister as articulated above. This statement is likely a last ditch effort to revive his flagging campaign, but is sure to deeply offend constitutional scholars.

Interestingly, Gotabaya Rajapaksa so far has been more respectful of the Constitution. When asked at his first press conference about what will happen to the sitting Prime Minister, he looked to the Leader of the Opposition Mahinda Rajapaksa to answer that question. He was ridiculed for this, but this was exactly the right thing to do. He was looking to the person who may command the confidence of Parliament for the answer. Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s first instinct in response to that difficult question was the correct one.

Both Gotabaya Rajapaksa and Sajith Premadasa will have to exhibit a strong sense character in order to stand their ground and protect Sri Lanka’s Constitution, much like Karu Jayasuriya or Ranil Wickremesinghe did during the Constitutional crisis. There will be many low caliber Parliamentarians who supported them who care not for the Constitution or democracy. Like starving hyenas they will be aggressively moving to benefit from the spoils of victory. They will be hungry for power at the expense of Sri Lanka’s democratic traditions. The next President must keep these dogs at bay!

The first test of leadership for Sri Lanka’s new President will be that question that was asked of Gotabaya Rajapaksa at his first press conference. If Sajith Premadasa or Gotabaya Rajapaksa answer the PM question by deferring to the Constitution, they will be taking the high ground. A position that will gain them the respect and admiration of Sri Lankans who value constitutional democracy. Their initial prospects for relelection and reverence from the polity will be bright.

However, if the next President makes the foolish mistake of desecrating the constitution in an illegal effort to consolidate power, he is likely to go down in the history books next to Maithripala Sirisena. Toilet Paper.

keeping the dogs at bay