The Supreme Court of Sri Lanka, in a controversial judgment on Dec. 17, ordered a reduction in petrol prices and said it should be implemented on the same day.
The government, on the other hand, declared that it would not implement the court’s ruling as it was contrary to the war effort against the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam. Furthermore, as per reports of a Cabinet meeting, the president also called on the government to oppose the court.
The court ruled that petrol with an octane count of 90 should be reduced to 100 rupees (US$0.89) per liter from the prevailing price of 122 rupees (US$1.08), and the other petrol grade with an octane count of 95, currently selling at 137 rupees US$1.21), should be similarly reduced.
A few days earlier President Mahinda Rajapakse had stated, “I am less than a magistrate” while complaining about judicial interventions against his decisions. Among his complaints were that two of his officers had been removed from their posts due to Supreme Court rulings and, more importantly, the issue of the 17th Amendment to the Constitution.
The implementation of this amendment had been suspended on various pretexts by the government. The Supreme Court intervened and called for the immediate implementation of this constitutional provision.
According to the 17th Amendment, a Constitutional Council appointed with the agreement of all political parties is to be given the power to appoint commissioners to several public authorities. These commissioners will have the power of appointment, promotion, disciplinary control and the dismissal of officers.
The purpose of this law is to prevent direct political appointments to important posts in the public service and to ensure that persons are selected purely on the basis of merit. The implementation of this law undermines the executive to the extent of preventing arbitrary appointments for political reasons.
The government’s claim that the Supreme Court’s decision on petrol prices will affect its war effort may sound comical to an outside observer. However, the political ideology and propaganda in Sri Lanka today is centered on one central enemy at a time, as has always been the case with totalitarian regimes.
For Hitler, it was communists first and later the Jews; for Joseph Stalin it was the counterrevolutionary bourgeoisie and then the Trotskyites. George Orwell in his famous novel, “1984,” exposes this aspect of authoritarianism through the character of Goldstein who is the enemy and the excuse for all the actions of the party in power.
Petrol, however, is a commodity that is needed for everything and therefore affects everyone. Oil prices affect the prices of all commodities. So the Supreme Court’s decision should help to bring down the prices of many commodities, particularly basic necessities.
In fact, the Burmese uprising in August 2007, known as the Saffron Revolution, was spurred by an increase in oil prices, which led to the increase in prices of basic food items. Therefore, it is no surprise that most people in Sri Lanka support the lowering of oil prices and also hope that this will bring down the prices of other commodities.
The government’s non-compliance with judicial orders should also worry the people. There are many reasons for this concern. First is the 200-year-old tradition of the separation of powers, which has created resentment in local minds against the absolute power of the executive.
Over the past 40 years there have been many attempts to undermine the judiciary and there have been setbacks in the institution. However, the basic belief in the separation of powers and respect for the judiciary still remains strong among the people. On the other hand, contempt for politicians is universal among Sri Lankans. Therefore, in any conflict there would be greater support for the judiciary than the executive.
In recent years, there has been a further reason for the people to look to the judiciary as a kind of savior – they have recourse to no other institution. All public institutions such as the police, the prosecuting system and the public services are so politicized that the people cannot expect assistance from them. The judiciary is the only hope.
The strong support the judiciary still enjoys with the people has so far prevented attempts by the government to unite in opposition to a court order. Press reports show that in the Cabinet itself there is a serious division of opinion.
However, this conflict with the executive, which is attempting to undo the principle of separation of powers, is inevitable. In fact, this tension has been present since the adoption of the 1978 Constitution. Despite many attempts by several presidents, it has not been possible to make the judiciary completely subservient to the executive.
In the initial stages Chief Justice Neville Samarakoon, previously a close associate of the executive president, J.R. Jayewardene, became his bitter enemy when the president tried to suppress the independence of the judiciary. Even the appointment of the present chief justice by former President Chandrika Kumaratunge was widely perceived as her attempt to have the judiciary on her side.
However, despite all such attempts, the tension between the executive and the judiciary has continued. Rather, it has surfaced as an open conflict.
The resolution of this conflict will necessarily be political. The people will have to resolve the issue of either living under a political system that is completely under the control of the executive or maintaining the separation of powers. According to reports, the government has already ordered the use of all propaganda at its command to support itself in this new war against the judiciary.
On the other hand, it is very likely that support for the judiciary will arise from all quarters. Particularly the country’s middle class, including the business community, would not wish to have the country controlled by the executive. On the other hand, for ordinary folk and the poor, further strengthening of the executive will only mean further hardships including higher prices of commodities.
Under these circumstances, a political crisis that will affect the basic human rights of the people has surfaced. If the executive wins this war against the judiciary, people will soon be heading in the direction of the type of life that prevails in places like Burma and Cambodia.
Whether the Sri Lankan people will become completely voiceless and submissive in the face of increasing poverty and degradation of life will depend on whom they support in this conflict between the executive and the judiciary.