Sri Lanka court verdict expected on Parliament's dissolution
Sri Lankan main opposition presidential candidate Maithripala Sirisena arrives to launch of his election manifesto in Colombo, Sri Lanka, Friday, Dec. 19, 2014. Sirisena said Friday that the country cannot be charged with war crimes in the International Criminal Court, but he will launch a domestic inquiry if he wins a January election. (AP Photo/Eranga Jayawardena)
Krishan Francis, The Associated Press
Published Thursday, December 13, 2018 7:03AM EST
COLOMBO, Sri Lanka -- Sri Lanka's Supreme Court is set to deliver a much-anticipated verdict Thursday on whether President Maithripala Sirisena's order to dissolve Parliament and calling for fresh elections was legal, moves that set off a political crisis in the Indian Ocean island nation.
A seven-member bench of the highest court concluded hearings last week after staying the order in November.
The court is expected in its verdict to explain a recent constitutional amendment that says that the president can't dissolve Parliament before 4 1/2 years from the day of its first sitting, and whether it applies in this case.
A ruling that Sirisena was within his rights could quickly end a political stalemate precipitated by his decision in October to sack the then-prime minister, Ranil Wickremesinghe, and suspend Parliament.
Such an order would pave the way for the election of a new Parliament, but prolong a period of uncertainty in Sri Lanka about who is running the country, according to Chandra Jayaratne of Friday Forum, a Sri Lankan rule of law advocacy group.
"Then the Parliament stands dissolved from tonight," he said. "Who is going to govern the country?"
If the court rules instead in favour of Sirisena's opponents, the president would be under pressure to reappoint Wickremesinghe as prime minister. On Wednesday Wickremensinghe won a confidence vote in Parliament.
While political norms dictate Sirisena respect the high court's verdict, Sri Lanka's strong executive powers mean that the court has no recourse if he doesn't follow it.
Lawmakers could separately move to impeach him on charges of breaching the Constitution, but impeachment requires 2/3 of votes in Parliament, and with Wickremesinghe commanding only a simple majority, an impeachment is seen as an unlikely outcome.
Sri Lanka's crisis began in October when Sirisena abruptly sacked Wickremesinghe and appointed former strongman Mahinda Rajapaksa in his place, the culmination of years of infighting over Wickremesinghe's economic reforms and his efforts to investigate alleged abuses during Sri Lanka's long civil war, which ended in 2009. The military under Rajapaksa has been charged with carrying out some of the alleged abuses.
Soon after being appointed prime minister, Rajapaksa sought to secure a majority in Parliament but failed. In response, Sirisena dissolved Parliament and ordered new elections, but those actions were halted by the Supreme Court.
Since then Rajapaksa has been defeated twice in no-confidence motions in Parliament and also had his and his ministers' budgets stripped by majority votes.
Despite Rajapaksa not having Parliament's confidence, Sirisena has resisted calls to reappoint Wickremesinghe, ignoring warnings that such a refusal could amount to a breach of the Constitution.
Wickremesinghe on Wednesday won the support of 117 members in the 225-member Parliament to function as the prime minister.
The no-confidence votes against Rajapaksa in Sri Lanka's Parliamentary chamber last month descended into chaos, with Rajapaksa supporters occupying the speaker's chair and throwing books and water mixed with chili powder to try to prevent a vote. The speaker announced that the votes were passed by voice and that there was no longer a prime minister or Cabinet.
However, Rajapaksa continued in office with Sirisena's backing. Lawmakers opposed to Rajapaksa filed another petition at the Court of Appeal, which ordered him and his ministers to stop functioning in their positions until the case was concluded.
With Sri Lanka effectively lacking a functioning government, some officials worry it will be unable to pass a budget to finance government activities beyond the end of 2018.