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The Future of Democracy in South Asia

Why Citizens Must Stay Vigilant

Supporters of Wickremesinge hold candles during a vigil demanding democracy in Colombo, Sri Lanka, November 2018. Dinuka Liyanawatte / REUTERS

On November 14, a fight broke out in the Sri Lankan Parliament. When the Speaker tried to call a vote, a group of MPs heckled him and rushed the podium. A rival faction tried to push the hecklers back. Men traded punches. One brandished a knife. A lawmaker cut himself trying to steal the Speaker’s microphone and ended up in the hospital.

The chaos was the result of a constitutional crisis that erupted in October, when the country’s president, Maithripala Sirisena, tried to oust the prime minister and replace him with a former president, Mahinda Rajapaksa. Lawmakers and citizens protested; Sirisena dissolved Parliament, until the Supreme Court ruled this unconstitutional; and Rajapaksa, rejected by Parliament, refused to step aside. The stalemate broke only in December, when Sirisena reinstated the deposed prime minister, Ranil Wickremesinghe, in the face of concerted opposition from the judiciary and a majority of Parliament. 

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