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‘Sri Lanka’s Other COVID-19 Crisis: Is Parliamentary Democracy at Risk?’

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“President Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s government appears headed for a constitutional crisis that could lastingly damage Sri Lanka’s political institutions and aggravate conflict risks,” writes Alan Keenan, a senior consultant on Sri Lanka at the International Crisis Group.

“The Sri Lankan government has declared its intention to rule without parliamentary oversight for the first time in the country’s modern history, potentially sparking a serious constitutional crisis. Elected in November and without a majority in parliament, President Gotabaya Rajapaksa seized his earliest opportunity to dissolve the legislature on 2 March and schedule a general election for 25 April. As the COVID-19 emergency grew serious in late March, the National Elections Commission (NEC) delayed the vote indefinitely.”

“With the constitution stating that parliament can remain dissolved for only three months pending fresh elections, Sri Lanka will head into dangerously uncharted territory unless the president or courts take decisive action before the deadline expires on 2 June.”

“The president and ruling family are both eager to hold an election while their popularity is high, and before voters feel the worst impact of the looming economic crisis, but they are also determined to rule without parliament in the meantime. Ministers and government supporters buttress their refusal to allow the assembly to reconvene with the populist claim that the president, elected last year by a wide margin, has a stronger democratic mandate than the legislators, who were elected in January 2015.”

“In this context, its apparent refusal to accept the modest constraints of parliamentary oversight seems to confirm widespread fears of an executive determined to rule without meaningful checks on its power.”

“Firm and cohesive action by Sri Lanka’s international development partners might help foster a constitutional way out of the impasse. Even before the COVID-19 outbreak, the new Rajapaksa government faced a formidable challenge in financing some $4 billion in loans coming due in 2020. The government’s need for international financial support- now even greater given the economic damage expected from the coronavirus shutdown- offers a rare point of leverage to nudge the president and ruling family onto a constitutional path.”

“That leverage should be even stronger now that the government has lost its legal authority to borrow additional monies. Indeed, international financial institutions and their member governments may have a fiduciary responsibility not to loan money to a government that has no legal power to borrow.”

“For these reasons, the World Bank, Asian Development Bank, International Monetary Fund and Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank should all convey to the government that they are reviewing approval of additional loans until the gap in government authority to borrow and appropriate money is closed.”

“Independent of lending policies, influential foreign actors such as the US, the EU, India and Japan, as well as multilateral institutions- notably the UN and the Commonwealth, for whom parliamentary and constitutional rule are core values- should press the government to recall parliament, pass the required laws and ensure to the extent possible that the election is held in a safe environment. By doing so, Sri Lanka’s international partners would be helping the country avoid an unnecessary and damaging power grab and political crisis- one that could also threaten its ability to manage the unavoidable health and economic crises it will be facing for months to come.”

See his full piece here.