Over the past few months, South Asia has seen a trend of uncertain political changes. Since the end of July, Pakistan, followed by the Maldives, has seen a transformation in the political leadership, with new policy directions towards the region. On October 26, India’s southern island neighbour, Sri Lanka, also experienced a sudden shift in government with the sacking of Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe by President Maithripala Sirisena.
The President claimed that “the name of a high profile minister had surfaced during investigations of the assassination plot by the Criminal Investigation Department, which had been suppressed due to political interference.” (Sunday Times) This has been cited by Sirisena as the main reason for Wickemesinghe’s removal. Subsequently, the unity government comprising of United People’s Freedom Alliance (UPFA) and United National Front (UNF), historically opposing ideological party alliances, collapsed with the UPFA pulling out of the national government.
A few hours after Sirisena appointed Mahinda Rajapaksa as the new Prime Minister, he declared it constitutional under the 19th amendment. The President of the Sri Lankan Bar Association also stated that “When a coalition partner left the unity government, the Cabinet automatically stood dissolved. Accordingly, the Prime Minister, too, ceased to hold office. In such a situation, the President is empowered to appoint a new Prime Minister who, in his opinion, commands the support of a majority of members in Parliament.”
However, the outgoing Prime Minister has challenged this move as being unconstitutional, since he has a parliamentary majority of 106 members, compared to Rajapaksa’s Sri Lanka Podujana Paramuna (SLPP) and Sirisena’s UPFA with combined coalition strength comprising 95 members. Hence, to now form a government, both Rajapaksa and Wickremesinghe need to prove a parliamentary majority of 113 in a 225-member parliament.
Currently, the Parliament has been postponed for three weeks by the President. This move is being perceived as a measure by the Sirisena-Rajapaksa alliance to gain time, to consolidate members from smaller parties to get the required majority.
There are several challenges the Sirisena-Rajapaksa government might face after coming to power. One is the presence of a strong opposition, mainly from parties dominated by Tamil and Muslim communities. The current coalition that Rajapaksa is building will be dominated by cross-over parliamentary members with different ideologies. The new former President turned Prime Minister would not enjoy the same privileges as earlier; Sirisena, as head of all the three armed forces, would enjoy absolute powers.
On assuming office, Rajapaksa would also face the challenge of foreign debts, mainly borrowed from China, along with rising oil prices. There will also be a need to find a reasonable settlement to gain greater Sri Lankan stakeholdership over the leased out vital nerve centres. Lastly, it would be important for the government to settle the minority issues by pursuing accommodative political settlements.
Meanwhile, the Western world is asking the new Sri Lankan government to act as per the Constitution. On similar lines, the closest neighbour India is closely observing unfolding events in Colombo.
Rajapaksa’s current foreign policy approach could be more favorable towards India as compared to his previous policy position from 2005 to 2015. Just a month ago, Rajapaksa visited India to deliver a lecture on Indo-Sri Lanka relations and, during this visit, he met Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
With this background, India might have an advantage with the Sirisena-Rajapaksa government to implement stronger foreign relations with the neighboring island country. In the recent past, India’s more neutral approach and policy of non-interference has succeeded in the Maldives scenario, where India reconciled its foreign policy with Ibrahim Solih’s victory. It is clear that there is a chance for India and the international community to engage more proactively with the Sirisena-Rajapaksa government such that a conducive environment can be created for the South Asian region.
(The authors are associated with the Jindal School of International Affairs, India. They can be contacted at email@example.com)