Sri Lanka’s president calls a snap election

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MAITHRIPALA SIRISENA, Sri Lanka’s president, abruptly dissolved parliament on November 9th and called a snap general election. The move capped several weeks of political drama in the Indian Ocean republic as the president has tested—many would say has greatly exceeded—the constitutional limits of his power.

The action began on October 26th, when Mr Sirisena abruptly sacked Ranil Wickremesinghe, the elected prime minister and also his ostensible political ally in the ruling coalition. He replaced him with Mahinda Rajapaksa (pictured), a former strongman president whose regime Mr Sirisena had loudly accused of corruption and even of having plotted to kill him. The flip-flopping president also suspended parliament for three weeks to avoid a debate on his actions, and began to swear in new ministers.

The suspension of parliament was widely seen as an indication that the new prime minister did not have the support of majority of MPs. The three-week pause provided time to win over more parliamentarians, with offers, several of the courted MPs claim, of ministerial posts and millions of dollars. But Mr Wickremesinghe had refused to leave office, on the grounds that only parliament, not the president, has the right to dismiss the prime minister. Domestic protesters and foreign diplomats were also pressing for a parliamentary vote on the change of government. So Mr Sirisena grudgingly called for the legislature to convene on November 14th, two days ahead of his original schedule.

Yet while wooing MPs for this showdown, the president seems to have concluded that he could not even rely on members of his own party, let alone sufficient defectors from that of Mr Wickremesinghe. Mr Rajapaksa seemed certain to fall short of the 113 votes needed for a majority. The speaker of parliament, meanwhile, insisted that there could be no delays, and that he would not recognise Mr Rajapaksa’s government without a floor test.

And so Mr Sirisena took a second dubious step, and dissolved parliament altogether—something a simple reading of the constitution suggests he can only do four-and-a-half years or more into its term. As with his previous move against Mr Wickremesinghe, this decision was announced at midnight on a Friday to pre-empt an immediate legal challenge. But most parties in parliament bar Mr Sirisena’s Sri Lanka Freedom Party said they would petition the Supreme Court first thing Monday morning. M.A. Sumanthiran, a legislator from the Tamil National Alliance, a party that has stood outside Mr Wickremesinghe’s coalition but is not enamoured of Mr Rajapaksa either, said they are all seeking a stay on Mr Sirisena’s disbanding of the legislature.

It is not clear how, or how soon, the judges will rule. All were appointed by Mr Sirisena or Mr Rajapaksa. Moreover, even if they do rule for the aggrieved MPs, it is not clear that the president and his new ally will accept their decision.

At any rate, the president and Mr Rajapaksa are defiantly consolidating their grip. Mr Sirisena has handed control over 42 departments, statutory bodies and state corporations to the finance ministry, a portfolio which the new prime minister has claimed for himself. Allies have been installed atop state-owned media outlets. Mr Sirisena, who is also minister of defence in the new government, has placed the police under his own authority. He has even decreed that the presidency will henceforth directly supervise the government printing department, which has been working long hours to publish his many orders.

But for all this activity, Sri Lanka is in limbo. New ministers have claimed office but civil servants remain wary of putting their signature to anything, in case the administration changes again. Parliament had been scheduled to devote November to hashing out a budget. Negotiations with foreign creditors, initiated to reduce Sri Lanka’s daunting debts, are at a standstill.

If all goes to Mr Sirisena’s plan, the election—which he has spun as a means of ending the very instability he precipitated—will take place on January 5th. Most analysts believe that Mr Rajapaksa, an authoritarian populist whose controversial ten-year rule ended only in 2015, would outpoll Mr Wickremesinghe, whatever the constitutional improprieties of the vote. Mr Sirisena’s conduct so far suggests he will not accept any result that does not square with his own plans. As Kishali Pinto-Jayawardena, a lawyer, points out, the “wildly unpredictable president may well dismiss the winner of that election as well, if the outcome is not to his liking”. Unless, of course, the Supreme Court calls off the vote.

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