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Hollow explanations?

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President Maithripala Sirisena’s third address to the nation in just two weeks attempted to explain his decision to dissolve Parliament. During the relatively short address, he pointed out that one key reason for dissolution was the high price tags placed on Members of Parliament (MPs), and this could not be condoned as Parliament represents the people. 

All citizens who are passionate about democracy and believe that it should be the bedrock of a nation would agree with part of the President’s statement. Parliament does indeed represent the sovereignty of the people. But the President seems to have conveniently forgotten that he was the person who triggered the pricing of MPs by swearing in Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa on 26 October and then proroguing Parliament. Had he allowed for Parliament to meet immediately and vote to decide the majority of the House, then the spate of crossovers and spree of MP buying would not have taken place.

During his address, President Sirisena also pointed out that the people who criticised his move on 26 October were silent when he appointed Ranil Wickremesinghe as Prime Minister in January 2015 at a time when the United National Party (UNP) only held 41 seats in the House. This same argument has been made numerous times by other politicians and political commentators over the last two weeks. 

However, what the public must also keep in mind is that during campaigning for Presidential elections in late 2014, this change was clearly stated by the ‘Yahapalanaya’ coalition. The fact that Ranil Wickremesinghe would be appointed as Prime Minister if Common Candidate Maithripala Sirisena won was mentioned in the manifesto. Moreover, the UNP openly campaigned on a platform that had Maithripala Sirisena as the Presidential candidate and its leader Ranil Wickremesinghe as the Prime Ministerial candidate. The information was in the public domain and the people had the opportunity to know what their representatives would do before they went to the polling booth. 

The appointment of Ranil Wickremesinghe as Prime Minister in 2015 also took place before the passing of the 19th Amendment, which clearly states that the Prime Minister must be the leader of the party that holds House majority and that he cannot be removed on the whim of the Executive. Therefore, equating what happened on 26 October with what took place in January 2015 could be extremely misleading. The secrecy and suddenness with which the appointment of Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa took place as well as the subsequent proroguing of Parliament was done with no public consultation or even notice. This severe lack of transparency and accountability is not in line with the best interests of democracy.  

It is true that 26 October is not the only time the Constitution has been questionably disregarded in Sri Lanka’s past. Unfortunately, Sri Lanka appears to be a victim of selective democracy. Ideally, Constitutional breaches should not be condoned under any circumstances, but the public is now forced to consider degrees of breach and contexts due to the poor political options before them. This is a deep and inextricable problem that does not bode well for Sri Lanka’s future. With rule of law under threat as never before, Speaker Karu Jayasuriya’s call for public servants to stand by the Constitution may be the best hope Sri Lanka has, as it heads for what will likely be a bitterly contested Parliamentary election. 

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