Sri Lanka is not the victim of foreign meddling but of a broken and confused system of governance
Sri Lanka’s long running political crisis may be resolved, but the strength of Sri Lankan governance is likely going to be tarnished for years to come. This is due to a leadership crisis in which the Supreme Court’s intervention ultimately ended (at least for now) months of political deadlock, but the overarching result is that confidence in the political system has been deeply shaken, as is always the case when it takes judicial intervention to attempt and resolve an otherwise purely political crisis.
The crisis began in October when President Maithripala Sirisena ousted Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe from office, only to replace him with former rival and powerful ex-President Mahinda Rajapaksa. And yet while Sri Lanka is essentially a hybrid parliamentary system which masks what is a de-facto strong presidential system, the strength of the presidency was tested when Wickremesinghe refused to vacate his office upon President Sirisena’s orders.
The crisis became ever more embroiled when Sirisena called for new elections that Rajapaksa was looking forward to contesting with a clean slate and backed by a new parliamentary party. Yet the scheduled elections are now not likely happen after President Sirisena bowed to several Supreme Court decisions mandating the unequivocal re-installing of Wickremesinghe as Prime Minister and the cancellation of new elections.
While some were quick to paint the stand-off as a geopolitical confrontation between the “pro-China” Rajapaksa and the “pro-India” Wickremesinghe, as events panned out, it became increasingly clear that such finger pointing was premature and that instead the crisis was symptomatic of the personal feuds that were empowered by a hybrid system in which both sides sought to test the limits of their respective powers – powers that are self-evidently not clearly enough defined.
A “strong president” and “strong prime minister” compete for power in a system that self-evidently lacks clarity and has not been able to create consensus
When President Sirisena dismissed his once and future Prime Minister Wickremesinghe – he did so in the way that a strong president can dismiss cabinet members and other advisers at will. This analogy is important as many have described Sri Lanka’s parliamentary government is little more than a presidential cabinet invoking parliamentary titles and symbolism. Yet when Wickremesinghe refused his dismissal arguing that he could easily maintain a parliamentary majority, he did so from the position of a strong prime minister whose fate depends not on the whims of a president or monarch, but on the number of seats he can command in the parliamentary chamber based on party and/or coalition loyalty rather than the support of a single person. Likewise, while Rajapaksa apparently stood to benefit from the President’s dismissal of Wickremesinghe, by acknowledging the importance of new elections, Rajapaksa knew that in order for him to gain parliamentary legitimacy, he needed his new party to gain a respectable number of parliamentary seats. Rajapaksa’s behaviour was therefore quite unlike a cabinet minister in a presidential system that does not rely on parliamentary support but only that of a single individual – the president.
What this all serves to demonstrate is that in spite of constitutional rules which are seemingly straight-forward, Sri Lanka’s hybrid political system that is neither a full-scale strong presidential system nor a fully fledged autonomous parliamentary system, has led to confusion as to who is really in charge – a prime minister and his ability to command support of members of parliament, or a president who can dismiss a prime minister at will, in spite of that particular Prime Minister being able to draw support from his parliamentary coalition.
The logical conclusion to any objective analysis of why the system failed in Sri Lanka, is that hybrid parliamentary-presidential systems have the unique ability to satisfy no one while attempting to placate everyone. This is true not only in developing countries like Sri Lanka but also in fully economically developed states like France.
France’s peculiar political system
One of the peculiarities of the French political system which is similar to some of the peculiarities of the Russian political system, is that rather than overseeing a US style congress, the directly elected French President oversees a National Assembly that is more similar to a traditional parliamentary system in terms of its composition and procedure, while paradoxically being similar to an American style congress in terms of its relationship with the powerful (as opposed to ceremonial) President.
While the Fourth French Republic was a relatively strong parliamentary system, since 1958 when Charles de Gaulle ushered in a new constitution, France has operated as a hybrid-strong presidential system. Because of this, motions of no confidence against the government in the National Assembly (the French lower house of parliament) do not effect the President’s position in a direct manner. In fact, because the National Assembly and the President are elected separately, it is sometimes the case that majority faction in the National Assembly is from a different party to that of the President. That being said, like in a traditional parliamentary system, after a vote of no confidence either opposition factions can attempt to form a new governing coalition (or a minority government) or otherwise the President can act to dissolve the Assembly and call for new elections.
Crucially, like in Russia’s hybrid presidential system, the individual selected to preside over the National Assembly as Prime Minister needn’t be an elected member of the Assembly, although typically the French Prime Minister is. This contrasts sharply with traditional parliamentary systems where the Prime Minister attains his or her position due to leading the largest single party or coalition in a popularly elected parliamentary chamber.
The French Fifth Republic has only ever experienced one vote of no confidence
While votes of no confidence are a relatively common practice in traditional parliamentary systems, in France’s hybrid system, the process was only ever invoked once prior to this week. In 1962, the government of then Prime Minister and future President Georges Pompidou was subject to a no confidence vote when every party opposed to Pompidou’s Gaullist UNR party voted against the government after opposition parties invoked article 49.2 of the French constitution which defines the procedure for no confidence votes in the French National Assembly. Of note is the fact that in 1962 Pompidou was the French Prime Minister in spite of the fact that he was not an elected member of the National Assembly – he was instead appointed independently of the Assembly by the President in much the same way that Russia’s Prime Minister is appointed under the post-1993 Russian Constitution. This is a rare occurrence in France, an inversely typical occurrence in Russia but an impossible occurrence in fully-fledged parliamentary systems.
After his supporters in the National Assembly badly lost the vote of no confidence in 1962, De Gaulle dissolved the Assembly and new elections were held in which Pompidou’s Gaullist UNR won a plurality of votes.
Last week’s vote
In the current National Assembly, parties loyal to President Emmanual Macron have a comfortable majority and hence the leftist and right wing opposition did not have enough votes to bring down the current government which remained united against the no confidence measure. Therefore, the vote in the current French National Assembly was symbolic and as was widely expected, it did not (as it could not) bring down the French President let alone his allies in the National Assembly. The most that last week’s vote could have done would have been to force the majority party and Prime Minister out of office in the Assembly, as was the case the only other time it was tried in 1962, even though the resulting election returned Pompidou’s Gaullist UNR back to power, which itself proved that the entire process amounted to much ado about little.
Not only is this the case, but the last time France experienced such prolonged street agitations, the President remained in power while in a legislative election in 1968, the Gaullist UNR still under the leadership of Pompidou won a super-majority.
Straightforward parliamentary systems are far more accountable
While President Macon is the unwilling face of this week’s no confidence vote and indeed the proximate cause of the vote, his office of the Presidency will not be effected by the vote except in symbolic terms. By contrast, if Macon was the Prime Minister in a full parliamentary system, the vote would damage his party’s authority even if he had won the vote. Just yesterday, Britain’s Prime Minister Theresa May was subjected to a no-confidence vote, not from the UK’s House of Commons (the main house of Parliament) but from her party. While she won the vote, she did not win by a margin that many think was sufficiently convincing. This makes the prospect of a full Parliamentary vote of no confidence all the more likely against the British Prime Minister. Beyond this, May’s authority as someone directly accountable to both Parliament and her party has been badly damaged – far more than a President like Macron could see his party damaged by the French Assembly’s vote.
There are no benefits to a French or Sri Lankan style split-executive in an age where politics ought to be efficient and as directly accountable to the public as possible. This is why for countries like The Philippines looking to change their Presidential style political system, the French or Sri Lankan model is nothing to envy in any sense.