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Politics

Sri Lanka's president isolated after ruling in constitutional crisis

Emboldened judiciary rules Sirisena dissolution of parliament illegal

Sri Lanka's President Maithripala Sirisena speaks to reporters at his residence in Colombo on Nov. 25.   © Reuters

COLOMBO -- Sri Lanka's Supreme Court leaves President Maithripala Sirisena politically weakened with a landmark unanimous ruling Thursday that he violated the constitution by dissolving parliament ahead of its mandated four-and-a-half-year term.

The decision by the seven-member bench represents the latest blow delivered by the South Asian nation's increasingly independent judiciary to a leader bent on flexing his executive authority.

Sri Lanka has lacked a functioning government since Sirisena sparked a crisis by sacking Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe and his nearly 4-year-old coalition government Oct. 26.

Ministers of the sacked government warn that the country could be brought to a standstill in the new year, since Sri Lanka's budget has not been approved by parliament. Foreign governments and international financial institutions have held off funneling millions of dollars into the country because it lacks a legitimate government.

The ruling strengthens the pressure on Sirisena to end his bitter political feud with Wickremesinghe, who continues to enjoy the backing of a majority in the 225-member legislature.

An emboldened judiciary had frozen Sirisena's act to dissolve parliament in a mid-November ruling, followed by a decision to suspend a new prime minister chosen by the president.

Seasoned political observers say Thursday's ruling will force Sirisena to retreat from his position of violating three major provisions of the constitution.

"The judiciary expects political leaders to follow the constitution and to respect the decision of the Supreme Court," Jayadeva Uyangoda, a retired professor of political science at the University of Colombo, told the Nikkei Asian Review.

"Sirisena has no option but to accept the Supreme Court's decision to let Ranil form the government again," he added. "It is up to him to prevent the country from falling further into a political crisis."

That retreat would require the president to swallow his pride. In the days after the crisis erupted, Sirisena targeted most of his political attacks at Wickremesinghe, blaming him for the collapse of the coalition government and pledging repeatedly never to reappoint him as premier.

The bad blood even prompted some Colombo-based foreign envoys to try to broker a truce between the president and sacked prime minister, according to local media reports.

By then, both feuding camps had made their case to diplomats in the Sri Lankan capital, with the speaker of the parliament informing envoys from democratic countries that Sirisena's power grab represented a "constitutional coup."

The judiciary has drawn swift praise among sections of the public for emerging as a bulwark in defense of law and democracy. Twitter lit up with comments such as this one: "This day will go down in history as the day seven judges stood up to a would-be dictator and said 'not on our watch'."

But as Sri Lankans await Sirisena's response, the economic toll suffered by the country mounts.

The Manila-based Asian Development Bank warned this week that the political crisis is undermining Sri Lanka's economy, as the island nation's growth of less than 4% makes it a laggard in South Asia, a region expected to hit 7.0% by 2018.

International ratings agencies Fitch and Moody's Investors Service downgraded the country recently due to the political upheaval. This comes as Sri Lanka faces maturing foreign loans and international debt servicing costs of up to $20.9 billion between 2019 to 2022. The $87 billion economy's current foreign-exchange reserves are a mere $7.5 billion.

"Sirisena is trying to sink the country single-handedly," a financial industry insider remarked. "He has become a political and economic liability."

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