The confrontation between the executive and the judiciary in Sri Lanka has reached a flashpoint following two successive judicial verdicts. In the first, passed last week, the supreme court declared that the parliamentary select committee formed to impeach the chief justice, Shirani Bandaranayake, did not have the requisite legal authority. The second verdict, passed by the court of appeals earlier this week, quashed the PSC’s findings against the chief justice and issued a writ against the committee. The rulings, which have put a spanner in the government’s plans to remove Ms Bandaranayake, show that Sri Lanka’s judiciary has suddenly discovered a spine after months of provocation by the Mahinda Rajapaksa government. There have been threats and open physical assault on members of the judicial fraternity. The judiciary does not want the government, which already has an unhealthy influence over matters of judicial appointments, to erode its independence further. The Rajapaksa government is thus facing the first major challenge in years to its free run of the State machinery. It is in no mood to be cowed down though. It intends to counter the move by upholding legislative supremacy. With its parliamentary majority, it might even enact a new law that will help it push through the impeachment. But no matter what it does eventually, the Rajapaksa government may not be able to escape the taint of irresponsibility, and even unconstitutionality, that will attach to its move against the top judge of the country.
This is an important moment for Sri Lanka: the outcome of this conflict will determine the strength of its democracy. The Rajapaksa government has used its huge popularity following the victory against the Tamil rebels to institute an absolutist regime. The judiciary’s resistance to government interference in its functioning, particularly Ms Bandaranayake’s refusal to support the Divineguma bill that usurped the authority of the provincial council, has given rise to the government’s ire. As the impeachment drama shows, the government can go to any length to maul dissent. If the judiciary is able to hold its own in this tussle, it will hold out hope for a democracy that is now being smothered by the ruling clique.