A constitutional crisis

There is an interesting political situation playing out here in Sri Lanka. The story needs a little background first.

Sri Lanka is a parliamentary democracy. Some would say, however, that whichever party is in power has too much power. That is, the government in power does not have an effective system of checks and balances to prevent misuse of that power. For example, the civil service system here does not extend to enough government employees, so that each change in government leads to widespread firings of even fairly low level bureaucrats and their replacement (often) with political party loyalists. One person even told me that government employees have learned  not to make improvements in the system, since then they would surely be fired at the next change of government for having made the old government look good. There is also the widely held opinion that the political appointees are corrupt and use their positions to make money by taking bribes to either do their jobs or not do their jobs as the case may be.

Of course, all of this is based on much hearsay evidence that I have no way to evaluate. Every government has corruption and if someone disagrees with government action, it is tempting to attribute the action to corruption than to simple disagreement. Whether this corruption is any worse than in the US, say, I have no real basis for judgment.

But having said that, people here have been pleased and interested to see that their Supreme Court is flirting with the idea of an independent judiciary.

Close to the time of our arrival, the Supreme Court ordered that many road blocks in the city of Colombo be removed as a violation of the fundamental rights of its citizens to free movement. I can report that the road blocks are still in place. This seems to have been a near repeat of a Supreme Court order of last January that police and the military could not search people without warrant during the night. In that case, the government complied with the order, but reinstated the checkpoints and searches after a couple of bomb blasts occurred in Colombo.

Then on October 8th, the Supreme Court canceled a contract between the Sri Lankan government and a land developer and fined the former president of Sri Lanka for a deal the Supreme Court determined to be corrupt. This made pretty much everyone happy (except the former president). The public saw what they believed to be a righteous check on presidential power. The current government was happy that the former president was a member of the opposition party and they could point the finger of corruption at them. The downside was the very long time it took for the Supreme Court to take this action and it really is not a blow for an independent judiciary if the ruling pleases the party in office.

Recently, the Supreme Court abrogated oil hedging contracts between several banks and Sri Lanka’s state owned oil company, the CPC. The Supreme Court ruled that the contracts were manifestly not fair, in that the banks paid out much less if the price of oil rose, than the CPC would have to pay if the price of oil fell. There were allegations that the director of the CPC entered into these contracts for corrupt reasons. This again sounded like the actions of a judiciary protecting the people from corruption and maybe it was. However, the Supreme Court action was taken after the price of oil fell drastically with the recent global economic collapse. So, in fact, the Supreme Court’s action allowed the government to bail out of a bad deal.

But then the Supreme Court went further. It determined that, now that the CPC was not paying off the hedging deal and that the price of oil on the world market was so low, the price of gas should be reduced to 100 LKR (the abbreviation for Sri Lankan Rupees) per liter immediately. The people cheered.

But the government did not. First they stalled, saying that they had to have a cabinet meeting to discuss this ruling, leaving the price of gas at 122 LKR/liter. Then the government-run newspaper, the Daily News, began to run some very scary stories. These stories quoted senior government officials as saying that an international conspiracy of Western powers, supported by the opposition party, was plotting to take away the government’s power to levy taxes for the purpose of stopping the war against the LTTE. The quoted senior officials promised the members of the armed forces and their families that the government would never allow this essentially traitorous effort to succeed. Yikes!

The stories were so unspecific about “the plot” that it took me a few days to connect them to the Supreme Court decision on the price of gas. Essentially, the government was accusing the Sri Lankan Supreme Court of cooperating in an international conspiracy to stop the war against the LTTE and indicating that it would not allow the Supreme Court decision to stand. This, coming from a government accused of making people “disappear,” defines scary for me.

That is how things stand right now. From the perspective of a foreigner who will be leaving next summer, it will be “interesting” to see how this will play out. It is rather more real and less of an intellectual exercise for my Sri Lankan friends. This country really needs an independent judiciary and, no matter what happens in this particular case, I hope the country is taking steps to establish one.



1 Comment

  1. January 8, 2009 at 6:37 pm

    […] resort to violence in support of their cause. I wrote recently about the “scariness” of the Sri Lankan government accusing the Supreme Court of Sri Lanka of being involved in an internatio…. I am happy to report that the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court is still among the living and the […]

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