We, the citizens, have been assured through the Sri Lankan Constitution that the “sovereignty is in the People and is inalienable. Sovereignty includes the powers of government, fundamental rights and the franchise.” The Constitution guarantees that “the executive power of the People, including the defence of Sri Lanka, shall be exercised by the President of the Republic, elected by the People”. This is the guarantee, the sentence that says “elected by the People”, that enables us to accept our Constitution, accept the authority of the President, and get on with our lives, safe in the knowledge that a majority of the citizens thought it fit that the person they elected could be trusted to perform the duties and enjoy the powers and privileges of the high office of the President. However, we, the citizens, are about to face the prospect of an unelected person, a person rejected by his own city and present in Parliament only through a single national list seat, soon to assume the role of the Executive President, representing the totality of our sovereign will.
This will be the case if the Parliament on the 20th of this month votes for Acting President Ranil Wickremesinghe, who has cynically thrown his hat into the ring. As a citizen who believed that the Constitution protected our rights, it is incomprehensible to me how such an individual whoever he/she may be, could be elevated to the status of the personage in whom we have vested our sovereignty, over whom there is no other authority, but has final authority over the armed forces, is offered immunity from prosecution by the virtue of that office, the sole authority empowered ‘to declare war and peace’ and is considered to represent and exercise without hindrance, our popular will. Is the Constitution so impotent at this moment as to allow a person whom nobody chose to represent them in Parliament, to now occupy the office of the President as representing and exercising our sovereign will?
The Constitution, in providing precisely for such an eventuality, has stipulated an important condition: “If the office of President shall become vacant prior to the expiration of his term of office, Parliament shall elect as President one of its Members who is qualified to be elected to the office of President.” I take that word “qualified” as of critical importance for the integrity of the process of this unusual circumstance of the parliament electing the President. In order to remain faithful to the spirit of the Constitution, which decrees that the President should be elected, the word ‘qualified” should mean at least, as having been elected to the Parliament by the people. To me, a person who was clearly rejected by the people, together with the entirety of the party that he leads at the most recent election, does not ‘qualify’ to wield the powers of the President or to represent our popular will. There is no question that the present moment is an unusual, unprecedented, unique one, which dare I say, was not foreseen by the Constitution.
It certainly provided for filling the vacuum left by a departing President during his term but didn’t foresee the eccentricities of such a President who would appoint as PM a person rejected by the people. When President Gotabaya Rajapaksa appointed Mr. Ranil Wickremesinghe to the post of PM, committing the original sin, he had a choice. He had earlier offered the post of PM to the Leader of the Opposition who put forward a set of conditions under which he would accept his offer. They were far less radical than the fate he was to suffer at the hands of the people later, having to make a run for it before the crowds stormed the Presidential Palace, appropriately on the anniversary of Bastille Day. Therefore, one couldn’t argue that the appointment of an unelected MP to the post of PM was made out of necessity, but rather due to a choice that was in substantive terms, undemocratic if not unconstitutional, and reminiscent of Rajapaksa’s other choices detrimental to the wellbeing of the people of this country.
Constitutionally, the President is expected to appoint the person who has a majority of support in the legislature. Intuitively, this was not the case regarding a person who had only one seat in Parliament, his own, and that too unelected. Unlike during the 52-day administration of President Maithripala Sirisena who appointed former President Mahinda Rajapaksa, elected in his own constituency and with several dozen seats in Parliament, PM Ranil Wickremesinghe’s support in Parliament was never tested at the time of his appointment as PM. There was no hashtag campaign in 2022 challenging that appointment as during the 52-day administration of 2018. It was only the people involved in the struggle who accurately saw one more reason for the prompt overthrow of President Rajapaksa. How are we to regard this state of affairs? How can we, the citizens, be passive victims of one man’s eccentricities? That man has now been deposed, precisely because of decisions such as these with no regard for the interest of the people. The people have clearly expressed their will and exercised their sovereign right to rid the island of that ruler.
The Parliament which is massively unpopular with the people standing in line at fuel queues in the cities and in the withering farmlands in the rural heartland has a chance to redeem itself by not making another, very consequential blunder. The ruling party, completely dismissive of the people’s visible discontent with it, has announced that it will support the candidacy of Ranil Wickremesinghe. The SLPP’s contempt for the people who elected them and for the people suffering due to its policies, and the lack of courage to course correct, couldn’t be clearer than in this official decision. The one dim and distant hope for them and their voters is a group of dissidents who have fielded a far more empathetic candidate of their own.
Where are we at, and who will save us? We are at a point when the decisions taken by those who wield power over us, will decide whether these questions will be resolved peacefully or violently. It is reported that a few cases against this state of affairs have been or are being filed with the Supreme Court. Given the shenanigans in Parliament, the usual to-ing and fro-ing, buying of votes and party-political considerations, it is difficult to imagine the MPs will emerge our saviours, and will have what it takes to gather themselves together to field a common candidate to defeat what is essentially the treacherous manoeuvre by the SLPP leadership. One still hopes against hope. However, the judiciary, vested with the grave responsibility of being one of the pillars of our sovereignty, may be able to clarify this unfortunate situation, created by an original decision which wasn’t in line with the spirit of the law, which then resulted in a series of events that flies in its face.