Sri Lanka is steeped in political uncertainty as Mahinda Rajapaksa bounced back to power on Friday, this time in the prime ministerial chair after President Maithri Sirisena surprisingly inducted him as replacement for Ranil Wickremansinghe.
It was Sirisena who had roundly defeated Rajapaksa in the presidential election in January 2015 riding on a staunchly anti-Rajapaksa plank, but now time has turned a full circle with the two teaming up against Wickremansinghe who was then an ally of Sirisena.
It was out in the open for some time that Wickremansinghe and Sirisena were in serious differences but that it would come to such a pass was hardly expected. The bitterness that characterised their relationship at one time was deemed to be an insurance that they would not come together.
The last has apparently not been heard of the high-stakes political battle because Sirisena’s action could lead to a constitutional crisis as the 19th amendment to the Constitution does not on the face of it allow the president to sack a premier without a majority in Parliament. As it stands, Rajapaksa’s Sri Lanka Freedom Party and Sirisena’s United People’s Freedom Alliance together have only 95 seats in Parliament while Wickremansinghe’s United National Party has 106.
Before Wickremansinghe was sacked, Sirisena’s party had snapped links with his party ending the coalition between the parties. That was
an apparent precursor to the replacement move. Before Wickremansinghe was removed, he had dashed to New Delhi. It will gradually emerge what really transpired in the talks that ensued.
There is more to the political moves than is evident on the surface. Rajapaksa was, during his presidency, a protégé of the Chinese Government and had been mainly responsible for the virtual debt trap because of which Sri Lanka was forced to lease Hambantota port to the Chinese, surrendering a part of Colombo’s sovereignty.
After the manner in which power has changed hands in Maldives with a regime inimical to China taking over after presidential elections, Beijing is clearly on overdrive to re-assert its influence in Sri Lanka. Rajapaksa’s return is apparently a manifestation of Chinese assertion which Sri Lankans need to be wary of because it is an index of Chinese neo-colonialism.
There is clearly a lesson for India in all this. The Chinese are not the ones to give up easily and Chinese leader Xi Jinping’s entire edifice of power as president for life rests on his being able to spread China’s influence across the world with maritime hegemony exercised through pliant governments.
Grudgingly, the Chinese have moved back a step in Maldives seeing the writing on the wall but they would still do everything possible to get the new Maldivian government to kowtow to them so that the access to the sea that Beijing has gained is not lost.
In Colombo, the Rajapaksa regime would be under intense pressure to deliver for China and to thwart Indian attempt to counter-balance it. Too overt a Lankan action in Beijing’s support will, however, go down poorly with the Lankan people who were three years ago exasperated by the manner in which China was short-changing Colombo and had voted Rajapaksa out in disgust.
The immediate bone of contention would be the docking of Chinese submarines. Also, there would be attempts to scuttle Indian investment which had been in principle agreed upon. How much Sirisena would be prepared to toe the Chinese line remains to be seen but for his own preservation in power he may well be pliant and accommodative.
There are also Indian projects in the pipeline with Japanese participation and it would not be easy for Colombo to brush them aside while claiming it is not tied to the apron strings of the Chinese.
But before everything else, the constitutionality of the manner in which Sirisena got Wickremesinghe out of prime ministership and brought in Rajapaksa would have to be sorted out.
Evidently, there is further action in store if Sri Lanka goes by constitutional principles and practices. But how the Chinese would guide the behind-the-scene activity remains to be seen.