November 12, 2018 @ 11:45 am

12 NOVEMBER 2018

The crisis deepens

Dissolution of Sri Lanka’s Parliament negates the letter and spirit of constitutional reforms

Sri Lankan President Maithripala Sirisena has dissolved Parliament after it became evident that Mahinda Rajapaksa, who he had appointed Prime Minister two weeks ago, did not enjoy a legislative majority. It is an act of desperation to prevent a likely loss of face for both leaders after Mr. Sirisena’s controversial dismissal of Ranil Wickremesinghe as Prime Minister on October 26. Sri Lanka has been roiled by political uncertainty ever since lawmakers of Mr. Sirisena’s party withdrew support from the ‘national unity government’ to facilitate Mr. Wickremesinghe’s removal and the swearing-in of Mr. Rajapaksa in his place. With many parties questioning the legality of the dismissal, the President suspended Parliament. This was a move to buy Mr. Rajapaksa time to garner support through defections. With around 100 MPs each in the 225-member House, both rival camps claimed they had the majority. But a 15-member alliance of Tamil MPs and six Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna lawmakers refused to support the newly installed regime, and Mr. Rajapaksa’s continuance became untenable. The President had to ask him to face possible defeat in a floor test or call elections as a way out. He has chosen the latter. However, a provision in the Constitution, introduced through the 19th Amendment by the Sirisena-Wickremesinghe administration in 2015, stipulates that the House cannot be dissolved for four and a half years after a parliamentary election, unless two-thirds of its total membership seeks dissolution through a resolution. Mr. Sirisena’s action has come in the face of this restriction.

A fig leaf of constitutionality has been made up, citing Article 33(2)(c), which says the President has the power to summon, prorogue and dissolve Parliament. However, it is difficult to see how a general provision enumerating some powers can override a specific provision elsewhere in the Constitution that expressly limits those powers. It is only a little over three years since the last election, and there is no request from MPs seeking the dissolution of Parliament. The promise held out by the 2015 reforms seems to have vanished with Mr. Sirisena’s actions. Given the manner in which recent constitutional reforms have been undermined, the process of writing a new, inclusive Constitution for the country may no longer inspire much confidence. The Sirisena-Rajapaksa camp has, expectedly, welcomed fresh elections, claiming it would reflect the true will of the people. Free and fair elections are, no doubt, central to a democracy; but when conducted in the wake of the questionable sacking of Parliament, they may be anything but. The Opposition parties are now set to challenge the President’s action. Sri Lanka is at a crossroads where it has to make a crucial choice between democratic consolidation or a retreat to authoritarianism. The judiciary has a crucial task at hand.


Ripples of discord

A forthcoming paper on the detection of gravitational waves will be illuminating

On September 14, 2015, the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-wave Observatory (LIGO) made the Nobel prize winning detection of gravitational waves. These waves are ripples in the fabric of space-time, arising from the merger of a pair of black holes in distant space, and their detection had been a long-time pursuit of physics. LIGO’s feat was among the most electrifying announcements in recent years. Since detecting this binary black hole (BBH) merger, the LIGO Scientific Collaboration (LSC) has made six such observations. Five of these were mergers of black holes in very different locations in space and with very different characteristics such as mass, and one was the merger of a pair of so-called neutron stars (binary neutron stars). Such mergers had been modelled theoretically even before the detection. The measurement was made easier because the team had templates for the type of signals to expect. The last few detections have been done in conjunction with another detector, Virgo. After the first discovery, the LSC made public its data. Analysing this, in 2017 a group of scientists questioned the validity of the first detection. They argued that the two detectors belonging to LIGO were correlated and that this led to a correlation in the noise factor. Weeding out noise from the signal is crucial in any such experiment, and James Creswell et al claimed that this had not been done properly by the LSC. Since then, a version of their preprint has been published in the Journal of Cosmology and Astroparticle Physics. After a long silence, on November 1, the LSC has put up a clarification on its website.

The clarification is cryptic, referring to “misunderstandings of public data products and the ways that the LIGO data need to be treated” by those raising objections. This encompasses a range of things, starting with lacunae in the analysis of data by Mr. Creswell and his collaborators. It transpires that in their analysis Creswell et al had used the data supplied by LIGO for a figure in their paper rather than the raw time series data that were made publicly available. While responding with a defence regarding processing of data is fine, it is unfortunate that the LSC team supplied data for the figure in the published paper that differed from the raw data. That said, a simpler and more direct corroboration of LIGO’s discovery stems from the wide variety of its sources. Now, the LSC plans to come out with a paper that carries detailed explanations. This would not be a second too soon. Put together, this is how science makes progress — in leaps and bounds, with thoughtful critiques and interventions in between. And in this case, the attendant controversy has captured the interest of even those beyond the world of science.

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