Amid Mass Protests, Sri Lankan Constitutional Quirks Led to the Appointment of a President the People Did Not Want
Wikimedia Commons / JURIST / CC
Amid Mass Protests, Sri Lankan Constitutional Quirks Led to the Appointment of a President the People Did Not Want

On 20 July 2022, a man who had recently lost a parliamentary election was appointed President of Sri Lanka. A closer look at what led to Ranil Wickramasinghe’s presidential reign highlights an array of Constitutional quirks that threaten to continue to undermine democracy in the island nation.

Wickramasinghe was hoisted into the presidency after obtaining the votes of 134 out of 225 members of Parliament (MPs). Confoundingly, this is in line with Sri Lankan law despite the fact that Article 4(b) of the country’s constitution reads: “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” [emphasis added].

After having lost the popular vote during the 2020 parliamentary elections, many would argue that Wickramasinghe should not even have been an MP when this week’s presidential vote took place. This unusual transition is detailed below.

The irony of Wickramasinghe’s ascent to power was highlighted in the days leading up to his appointment by the popularity of gifs and videos from the film Johnny English, where Rowan Atkinson, famous for his portrayal of Mr. Bean, suddenly finds himself being named King of England. Since we Sri Lankans thrive on dry humour in almost every situation, Wickramasinghe’s ascent to President of Sri Lanka could be seen as a black comedy.

But jokes aside, his rise is in fact part of a larger Sri Lankan tragedy, which has been unfolding throughout 2022.

Some optimists may still harbor hope that his presidential appointment will bring political and economic stability to a country in crisis. But for the reasons laid out in this article, any hopes for stability must be tempered with the absurdities of Wickramasinghe’s constitutionally valid but unconventional path to the presidency.

The Rocky Rise of Sri Lankan Political Royalty

Similar to the Rajapaksa family, which has dominated Sri Lankan politics for nearly two decades, Wickramasinghe is a product of Sri Lankan political royalty, albeit from the older and more influential line of the Senanayake-Kotelawala-Jayawardene families.

He first entered Parliament in 1977, serving several terms as both Prime Minister and Leader of the Opposition, as well as having served at the helm of the United National Party (UNP) since 1994. Wickramasinghe’s reluctance to hand over the leadership reins to his deputy Sajith Premadasa in recent years resulted in the party splitting and Premadasa forming the Samagi Jana Balawegaya (SJB), bringing the majority of former UNP members along with him.

This split also created an unusual result during the 2020 parliamentary elections. Likely as a result of public disapproval of Wickramasinghe’s machinations and as a show of support for Premadasa, the UNP, which had remained a giant among Sri Lanka’s political parties since the first parliamentary elections of 1947, suddenly found itself with zero seats for the first time in its existence.

Wickramasinghe entered Parliament in 2020 on the single ‘National List’ seat allocated to the UNP as a party on the national proportional representation basis; thus his very reemergence in parliament after such a staggering loss is itself a legal quirk that fails to directly represent the will of the people.

But any questions of legitimacy did little to thwart his rise; in May 2022, amid a sovereign default and extreme inflation, then-prime minister Mahinda Rajapaska resigned from his position. His brother, then-president Gotabaya Rajapaksa, appointed Wickramasinghe to the premiership on 19 May. Meanwhile, mass protests continued to mount, with activists storming the official residences and offices of both the premier and the president. On 14 July, Gotabhaya Rajapaksa resigned from the presidency, paving the way for yet another unlikely ascent for Wickramasinghe.

Why Did the Parliament Choose the President?

The procedure by which Wickramasinghe was appointed to the presidency is replete with quirks. Normally, Sri Lankan presidents are chosen by the people by way of popular elections. But there can be exceptions, such as when a president resigns before completing their term.

Specifically, articles 38 and 40 of the Constitution and the Presidential Elections (Special Provisions) Act No. 2 of 1981 create grounds for the parliament to elect a qualified member of their own ranks to the presidency.

Three names were nominated: Wickramasinghe, Dulles Alahapperuma, and Anura Kumara Dissanayake. Opposition Leader Sajith Premadasa removed himself from the race to nominate Alahapperuma, in hopes of uniting support behind the more neutral nominee.

The members of the ruling coalition Sri Lanka People’s Freedom Alliance (SLPFA) — the largest group in Parliament, having secured 59.09% of votes and 145 seats and having won 18 of 25 electoral districts in 2020 — were assumed to be split between Wickramasinghe and Alahapperuma, the latter being a member of their own coalition.

The Rajapakshe clan’s support for Wickramasinghe clearly influenced the parliamentary vote, an inevitable result given the prominence of the Sri Lanka Podujama Peramuna (SLPP) party, which is led by Basil Rajapakshe — brother of Mahinda and Gotabhaya, as well as loyalty to the Rajapaksas or self-interest votes for Wickramasinghe. Although formerly political rivals and a leader of a different political party, Wickramasinghe was seen as the Rajapaksa’s nominee in this situation.

Wickramasinghe’s Appointment Against a Backdrop of Mass Unrest

It bears observing at this point that the mass protests in Sri Lanka, known as the Aragalaya or People’s Protests, brought about the resignation of a democratically elected president who obtained 52.25% of the vote in 2019 (6,924,255 votes of the 83.72% of the eligible voters who cast their votes). And yet he is being replaced by a politician with a glaring record of unpopularity; again, Wickramasinghe reduced his formerly successful party’s parliamentary presence to zero seats in 2020, before entering parliament via the single seat allocated to his party, i.e., via a bureaucratic process that foisted a rejected candidate upon parliament and the people. This seat was granted on the basis of the national proportion of voters for his party, which amounted to 249,435 voters, or 2.15% of votes cast in 2020.

To place this in a more hauntingly clear context, of registered voters in 2020, 75.89% or 16,263,885 voters cast their ballots in the parliamentary elections, and the UNP failed to obtain even a single seat for any of its candidates, including its party leader. In Colombo District, which is Wickramasinghe’s constituency, the UNP only received 30,875 votes. Since this amount was only 2.61% of the votes for the District, and was below the 5% cutoff point for counting of the preferential votes for the individual candidates, the true number of direct votes Wickramasinghe received personally is not known, but cannot be more than 30, 875. Yet, that party leader is today the president — the most powerful individual in Sri Lanka.

Efforts have been made to emphasize the lack of a true democratic legitimacy of  Wickramasinghe’s dubious rise. On 19 July, the Supreme Court of Sri Lanka, accepting the preliminary objections filed by the Attorney General and respondents, dismissed a petition that had aimed to invalidate Wickremesinghe’s national list parliamentary seat. The petition failed because Wickramasinghe had followed protocol in taking up his position as MP, but it highlighted the fact that he had been soundly rejected by the people in a democratic, free and fair election.

What’s Next?

Sri Lankans of all economic classes are struggling to work, study, and earn a living amid a severe petrol and diesel crisis. They are resorting to burning firewood and charcoal in the face of a cooking gas crisis. They are struggling to feed their families with the doubling and tripling of essential food prices. They have come together and made their grievances clear during months of public protests. And yet the country’s options are limited by its constitutional and political realities, which in my view, made Wickramasinghe’s rise all but inevitable.

And beyond the questions and controversies surrounding his presidential appointment, Wickramasinghe’s political past cast doubt on his ability to combat such a severe economic crisis.

In 2003, he introduced the Inland Revenue (Special Provisions) Bill, which was later declared unconstitutional by the Supreme Court because it granted immunities and indemnities to individuals who had contravened the law and thereby defrauded public revenue. More recently, he appointed as Central Bank Governor Arjuna Mahendran — a man whose ultimate role in the Central Bank Bond Scam of 2015-2016 propelled him to seek refuge in Singapore from his impending arrest.

And the above examples don’t even touch on some of the more egregious policies and behaviors associated with Wickramasinghe.

Sri Lanka’s president, the commander of its armed forces, has an appalling track record of human rights during his time in the governments of Presidents J.R. Jayawardene and Ranasinghe Premadasa during 1977-1993. During these periods, ‘emergency regulations’ were used as justification to abduct and detain tens of thousands of individuals in the absence of legal and court processes.

Among his nicknames is that of the Crazy Cat of Batalanda — a term recalling the extrajudicial torture chambers he was allegedly associated with in the late 1980s to early 1990s. Notably, his term as Prime Minister from 2015-2020 was comparatively temperate and included the introduction of legislation and the establishment of institutions for the protection of human rights and national reconciliation.

The next weeks and months will show which version of  Wickramasinghe will come to the fore.  Sri Lankans will come to know if we will be saved by an extremely unlikely hero — a hero in his own eyes, certainly — or whether the economic and political crisis will deepen further under his watch.

Nishara Mendis is a lecturer in the Department of Public and International Law, Faculty of Law, University of Colombo, Sri Lanka. She currently teaches and is a research advisor for the topics of Public International Law, International Humanitarian Law, Law of the Sea and Human Rights. Her current research interests are focused on economic and social rights, WTO Law, Humanitarian Law and Law and Literature.