Implausibility of impeachment

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There is a major economic crisis in the country which has led to political instability and a constitutional stalemate. With the resignation of the Cabinet of Ministers barring the Prime Minister, there is an urgent need to appoint a Cabinet in addition to the four Ministers already appointed. There are serious discussions to reach a consensus on some of the proposals submitted jointly by the group of MPs who announced last week about their independent status in Parliament.

Meanwhile, some parliamentarians raised the possibility of a No-Confidence Motion (NCM) or an Impeachment Motion in Parliament. An NCM will not solve the issue of a constitutional impasse as the executive president cannot be removed by an NCM. It is not clear if the Opposition will be able to get the support of 113 MPs to win a NCM as the ruling SLPP has the majority in Parliament. Even if the Government loses its simple majority in Parliament, there is no constitutional provision for a resolution in Parliament to remove the incumbent President by a simple majority. 

Impeachment Motion

The only way a President could be removed is by passing an Impeachment Motion by a 2/3rd majority in Parliament. Under Article 38(2) of the Constitution, the President can be impeached on a number of grounds including the “intentional violation of the Constitution”, and “misconduct or corruption involving the abuse of powers of his office”. The first step of the Impeachment process is providing notice of a resolution to initiate an Impeachment to the Speaker signed by a majority of Parliamentarians. Such a notice must be signed by at least half of the total number of MPs, and the Speaker must be satisfied that such an allegation merits inquiry, before the notice of such Resolution can be placed on the Order Paper of Parliament.

If the Speaker is satisfied with the charges listed in an impeachment motion, he will have to submit it to the Supreme Court to verify its Constitutional validity following which the Supreme Court is required to conduct an inquiry and forward a report of its conclusions to Parliament. If the Supreme Court concludes that the President is guilty of the allegations, then two-thirds of Parliament must again support a Resolution to oust the President. Given the current arithmetic in Parliament, it is rather impossible that such a process would be successful.

Impeachment conspiracy

The past experiences of impeachment attempts show clearly that it is almost impossible to garner enough strength for such a Motion in Parliament where the Opposition is divided. There were two instances in Sri Lanka when a section of Parliamentarians considered impeaching the President. The first occasion was a strong attempt to impeach President Ranasinghe Premadasa in 1991, but he wriggled out by using his wits and deceptive strategies. Three stalwarts of his own party, Ministers Gamini Dissanayake, Lalith Athulathmudali and G.M. Premachandra were the architects of the conspiracy to impeach President Premadasa. Initially Speaker M.H. Mohammed was also suspected of being aligned with the move and he was given the Impeachment Motion signed by around 140 MPs. Premadasa came to know of the impeachment move and nipped it in the bud with the support of Ministers including Ranil Wickremesinghe, Sirisena Cooray and Weerasinghe Mallimarachchi. It was rumoured that some of the signatories were offered perks and bribes to change their mind. Finally, Speaker Mohammed announced that he was not entertaining the Impeachment Motion amidst accusations that he took a huge bribe to do so. One MP accused Mohammed of a treacherous act like betrayal of Jesus Christ by Judas and said, “In this instance Judas did not get the proverbial 13 gold sovereigns, but Rs 95 million (the alleged bribe paid by a Premadasa loyalist business tycoon).”

Constitutional crisis

The other occasion when some MPs toyed with the idea of an impeachment was in 2018 when the Supreme Court decided that President Maithripala Sirisena’s action to appoint Mahinda Rajapaksa as the Prime Minister was a violation of the Constitution. The sacking of Ranil Wickremesinghe as Prime Minister resulted in a grave Constitutional crisis and Wickremesinghe continued to assert that he was the country’s duly appointed Prime Minister, and refused to vacate Temple Trees, his official residence. President Sirisena turned down a request from Wickremesinghe to convene an Emergency Session of Parliament and then prorogued Parliament for a month.

After the Supreme Court verdict, some UNP leaders examined the possibility of impeaching President Sirisena, but the move was later dropped after realising the impossibility of obtaining a 2/3rd majority in Parliament at the time.

The contrasts between President Premadasa and President Rajapaksa are so wide. The former managed to become President with a mere 50.43% or 2.5 million votes while the latter got a comfortable 6.9 million votes (52.25%). Premadasa’s UNP initially had 125 MPs in Parliament but the numbers got drastically reduced when Athulathmudali, Dissanayake and Premachandra left the Government with their supporters. Despite heavy odds, Premadasa managed to defeat the impeachment move and the Motion could not even be presented to the then Parliament.

The SLPP had 157 MPs in Parliament initially and now even with 42 MPs remaining independent, the ruling party has a clear majority in Parliament. Furthermore, those who remain independent too have not extended any support to an impeachment proposal.

Hence, what is needed is not to chase impossible dreams of an impeachment, but to look for a pragmatic consensual arrangement so that a collective effort could be made to ensure political stability and restore public normality by procuring products and services essential for day-to-day lives of the people. Such restoration of normality is essential to prevent the further degeneration of the economy.

By Sugeeswara Senadhira