Sri Lanka has a new Prime Minister. Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP) leader Mahinda Rajapaksa was sworn in to the position on Thursday, completing the process that began when his brother was elected as the Executive President at the start of the week.
The significant mandate that was given to President Rajapaksa paved the way for Opposition Leader Mahinda Rajapaksa to ascend to the same position that he briefly occupied in 2018. The stage is now set for the appointment of a caretaker Cabinet until parliamentary elections expected early next year. This is expected to take place immediately.
The appointment of two brothers from the same family as Executive President and Prime Minister is a significant historical event, but it does not in and by itself cause problems. The Constitution, which both the President and the Prime Minister swore to uphold, holds within it key restrictions to ensure a balance of power. The 19th Amendment in particular sets out restrictions on Executive powers, including the President not being allowed to hold ministries, and only function as the head of Cabinet.
For as long as these checks and balances are respected, rule of law, accountability and the space for an institutional democracy to function will remain open. But if the Constitution is not upheld, then fears of power being concentrated in one family will surface once again. Sri Lanka has already seen instances when too many institutions and powers are held by members of one family, and what can ensue in such a set of circumstances, so it is understandable that moderates and minority communities may feel jittery about the developments this week.
It is therefore up to the President and the Prime Minister to ensure that the Constitution is respected and upheld. Many criticisms have been directed at the 19th Amendment, which has been described by analysts as the “unloved orphan” of the now concluded “Yahapalanaya” administration. Many are the plans that have been outlined to repeal it, including the formation of a new Constitution.
In fact, President Rajapaksa’s manifesto clearly notes that a Parliamentary Select Committee (PSC) will be appointed to consult all stakeholders and draw up the framework of a new Constitution. Prime Minister Rajapaksa, in his first statement after his brother’s victory, spoke of Constitutional and legal changes being a core focus on their administration. Despite harbouring negative sentiments, it is the responsibility of the new appointees to uphold the Constitution, including the 19th Amendment, until a future election, possibly the upcoming Parliamentary Poll, gives them the mandate to take their Constitutional plans forward.
Respecting the Constitution is also an economic imperative. Arguably the biggest damage caused by the 2018 constitutional crisis was the ratings downgrade given to Sri Lanka. While the damage from that has ebbed, it is essential to remember that Sri Lanka still has hefty financing needs, estimated at about $19 billion till 2023, and needs to maintain a stable economy to attract investors.
The President and the Prime Minister have been given a strong mandate by the people. But it is a mandate to serve the public interest, and that is what needs focus. It is now up to them to demonstrate their dedication to democracy.