I. Rajan Philips: “The government’s consummate crisis in the face of Mahinda’s unconsummatable win,” Sunday Island, 18 February 2018,
There is no pussyfooting around the political shellacking at last week’s polls, that the President’s and the Prime Minister’s teams got at the hands of Mahinda Rajapaksa’s budding party of old bloomers. Not surprisingly, the shellacking has precipitated a consummate crisis in the so called national-unity government. While the results of the local government elections have created the current crisis in the national government, the same results cannot provide any mechanism or mandate for resolving that crisis. Nor can the impressively lopsided success at the local elections directly enable Mahinda Rajapaksa to replace the government at the national level. Put another way, SLPP cannot nationally consummate its aggregate win at the local elections. It can, however, create havoc for the unity government and it is doing so in spades. The government leaders, on the other hand, are scrambling with no one showing any capacity to take control of the situation and restore even a semblance of order.
The President is being true to his recent form in putting out contradictory positions by the hour. In one instance, he wanted Prime Minister Wickremesinghe sacked as Prime Minister. In another, he was reportedly open to the current PM continuing even with support from some SLFPers to ensure majority government. This was soon denied by his media unit. At one time, the President seemed sobered by the realization that under the 19th Amendment, he cannot fire the Prime Minister, or prematurely dissolve parliament except upon a parliamentary resolution with two-thirds majority. Then he changed his mind and told a Joint Opposition delegation that he was seeking legal advice to see if he could remove the Prime Minister at his whim in spite of, or under, the 19th Amendment. Within hours, Prime Minister Wickremasinghe countered with his assurance that he would be Prime Minister until 2020 in accordance with the constitution.
“Cool and confident Ranil continues as PM”, beamed the Daily Financial Times on Saturday, finally breathing free after battling a week of badgering news for the UNP. The news story behind the headline was about the Prime Minister’s media conference on Friday after the President had abruptly cancelled his breakfast meeting with the media previously scheduled for Friday. Whether the cool and confident Ranil can neutralise the frantic and frenetic Maithri has become the political question of the day. And one to which no answer has been found over days despite late night meetings to cool down temperatures.
Lonely at the summit: The President may not have been too pleased to hear about the alleged telephone conversation between former President Rajapaksa and Prime Minister Wickremesinghe. The always revealing Rajitha Seneratne provided the first version that Rajapaksa had called Wickremesinghe and told him that the latter should continue as PM. Mr. Rajapaksa promptly denied it, calling it “a deliberate lie” unbecoming of a senior government minister. But on Friday, the Prime Minister confirmed that the former President had called him to ask if he was planning to resign as PM. “No”, said the Prime Minister. “Very good” said the former President.
There could be another version of it, or more calls between them, before we are through the current circus. All of this means nothing unless you are interested in what is going on in the President’s mind. Who of any consequence is calling him nowadays for a private but high level chat? It must be feeling very lonely at the summit, especially after he had called all his colleagues thieves. Imagine what the President’s state of mind would be if the media piles on him even one tenth as much as it has been piling on the Prime Minister. I am not saying that the PM does not deserve what he has been getting from the media. But isn’t it curious that the President is not getting any of it. Is the media scared of the office of the presidency, perhaps a hangover of fear from the dark days of the past? Or is Ranil bashing some Freudian symptom of maladjusted patriotism?
It is indeed curious that with all the speculations about and calls for Prime Minister Wickremesinghe’s removal from office, or for ‘forcing him to resign voluntarily’, there is nothing about President Sirisena. If the results of the local election are taken to mean that the PM should be sent packing, they should equally mean that the President should be sacked too. In fact, among the three principal contenders in the local-election-turned-national-referendum, the President and his entourage fared the worst and that too by a long margin. So the President and the SLFP have no greater mandate to remain in governance than the Prime Minister and the UNP – that is if the results of the local elections are interpreted as mandating a change in national governance. And how would the local government election results ever justify Nimal Siripala de Silva worming his way to Temple Trees as Prime Minister of a minority government?
There is no need to add anything more to Ranil bashing, but the cool and confident Prime Minister still doesn’t get it when he surveys the post-election debris with studied equanimity, talks about lessons learned and professes future reforms, but deliberately avoids the ‘B’ word – the bondgate that more than anything else contributed to the public thrashing his party got on February 10. His contrition ought to be not only sincere but also thorough, and his new promises after two years of betrayals have to be more specific and not at all motherhoods. That said, the incessant calls from outside the UNP for the ouster of Ranil would seem to have shored up his support within the party. Internally, the UNP seems to have launched quite a critique of the PM at the level of deputy ministers and state ministers, while at the same time rallying round him in the face outside attacks.
The calculations by busybody manipulators to tease anti-Ranil UNPers out of the party to support a non-UNP PM do not seem to have succeeded so far. Yes, so far! Because, we never know who will be where when it all ends. Despite the euphoria of the SLPP victory, the UNP still has the numbers not only in parliament but also in the country. It is silly to see parallels to 1956, 1964, or 1970 in the political developments of this week. If there is any lesson from history, it should be the false prophesy of 1956 that it was the last nail on the UNP coffin. The other lesson should be 1977 when the UNP, once again thought dead in 1970, rose from ashes with a vengeance and the vibrations from which are still being felt. In 1975, no one confidently wagered that within two years JR Jayewardene would become not merely Prime Minister, but President of Sri Lanka.
A new political culture: My point is that the Sri Lankan society, polity and economy have been too much transformed in size and in substance to be amenable for analysis and prescriptions using party loyalties and ideological categories of the old decades. This transformation and how we could deal with it is quite well illustrated by the real results of the local elections, not the aggregate totals that have been appropriated for the national circus. A good number of councils are comprised of a plurality of party representatives, with no single party securing a clear majority. In many of them, the party with the largest number of seats but not exceeding the 50% mark may end up in opposition, if all the others gang up to form a majority in council. This has led to much frustration among party apparatchiks and calls for amendments to the newly minted local elections law. That would be unfortunate.
There is another way to look at this and that is to see the apparent stalemate of plurality without a majority as a blessing in disguise for consensual governance. That is simply to foster the culture for members to vote on every issue or motion – from budgets to by-laws to project approvals – not pre-determinedly along party lines but as individual councillors and on the merits of each motion. In other words, every motion or initiative must have support across party lines. The exercise could start with the election of Mayors or Chairpersons. It is not going to be easy or pretty but there is no other way to breakout of our vicious circle of partisan politics.
Local governments in western democracies work on this basis – reaching consensus among a plurality of councillors, and not government by party loyalty and majority. This was also the basis of the vaunted Committee System of the Donoughmore Constitution, which itself was modelled on the Council system in the City of London. Even in China, it is at the local level democratic debates and decision making are permitted and fostered despite the overarching one-party apparatus.
The local effects of the local government elections are all but ignored at the national level. A desperate Commissioner of Elections is looking for help, especially over the question of meeting the 25% requirement for female representation. But no one in government or opposition is interested in helping the Commissioner. Their interest ended when they appropriated the aggregate local results for national posturing. I say posturing, because there is no way to constitutionally dismiss the Prime Minister or prematurely dissolve parliament. The President should ask his advisers what will happen to him, and to them, over the next two years with a non-UNP Prime Minister or a dissolved parliament. Rather than seeking inconsequential legal opinion on constitutional matters, the President should ask the Governor of the Central Bank about the effects on the economy due to the political circus that he has chosen to stage and preside over.
On the other side of the SLFP divide, Mahinda Rajapaksa is the unintended beneficiary of the miscalculations of his two political adversaries. RanilWickremesinghe’s cynical ploy to keep the SLFP divided in the country at large, while sharing the bed with it in government has backfired spectacularly. Maithripala Sirisena’s congenital confusion over the primacy of office – which is more important: SLFP presidency or Sri Lankan presidency, and his eleventh hour screams as the country’s only anti-corruption crusader, have mostly alienated Sri Lankans than won them over to his camp. The consummate common opposition candidate two years ago, Mr. Sirisena, has now exposed himself as a man totally out of his depth in handling the challenges of office.
Notwithstanding all this, Mahinda Rajapaksa is perhaps the only man in the entire Joint Opposition bandwagon who might appreciate the precariousness of the current political situation and the risk of forcing a change of government in parliament. Consider this cynical scenario: the UNP decides to withdraw from government and Ranil Wickremesinghe resigns as Prime Minister, leaving it to the President to do whatever he wants with Nimal Siripala de Silva. The one person who will not at all be happy with this outcome would be the former President. Unlike the congenital agitators in the JO baying for Ranil’s blood, Mahinda Rajapaksa not only knows Ranil better than anybody, but also has exercised power and knows the risks involved. He demonstrated this quite effectively when he relinquished office without any drama in January 2015, despite legal, constitutional and perhaps military advice to the contrary. It is unlikely that what he relinquished constitutionally then he may want to support being transacted unconstitutionally now.
The rational way out of the current impasse, if sanity and not insanity would prevail over the weekend, will be for the current President and the Prime Minister to work out, however reluctantly, a new co-habitation plan and govern for the next two years. For all intents and purposes, they will be caretakers in government until the people get their formal chances in 2019 and 2020 to elect a new president and a new parliament. There will be no space or tolerance for the PM-knows-best style and the mega-scale of government that went on for the last two years. From Megapolis to free trade to the Constitution and to Geneva, it will be more painstaking and consultative and focused on achieving practical results and not chasing grand dreams. This was the new culture that was promised in January 2015. There might be an opportunity to try some of it now but in a crucially and ironically different political situation. In January 2015, Mahinda Rajapaksa was a defeated President. In February 2018, he has re-emerged as the most powerful political force.
II. Sanjana Hattotuwa: “What the poll portends,” Island, Sunday Island, 8 February 2018,
Since results of last weekend’s local government election were released, Hindu kovils were vandalised in Mannar, Muslims were subject to violence in Veyangalla and Uguraspitiya and an ebullient Mahinda Rajapaksa has commanded the media gaze. Much to unpack here.
The election result itself is an indication of many things that were foretold and forewarned, and a re-run of the technocratic gaze that ultimately ousted the Wickremesinghe-led UNF government back in the days of the ceasefire agreement. Lessons unlearnt then, remain unheeded now. The lack of any official press release from the PM or President after the election and the inability to even convene a press conference suggests the ferocity of the SLPP’s electoral sweep took even them by surprise. The former President on the other hand, ever the mediagenic genius, had no problem whatsoever commanding the headlines. While the UNP and SLFP descended into a kindergarten mode of you said, they said, he said, I’m never speaking to you ever again, here’s a toffee so be my friend style politics, and in full display of an already disgruntled and disgusted voting public, the SLPP’s media blitz was on par with its electoral performance – excellently executed, and for the most part, effective.
The mainstream media’s frothing fascination with every titbit of political gossip since last Sunday has been to the detriment of more sober reporting and reflections on the result and its aftermath. Lost in the melee of updates was reportage on the license some felt, as a result of the SLPP victory, to act violently against religious and ethnic minorities, with memories of guaranteed impunity. When this was flagged on Twitter, a barrage of insults and bitter invective followed by self-styled champions of the SLPP, reminiscent of the violence online that mirrored the awful censorship offline under the Rajapaksa regime. The fact that the SLPP swept the local government poll is not surprising. This was the government’s election to lose, not the SLPP’s to win. What’s disturbing as a consequence are the immediate and distinct markers of extremism and violence, now pent up that lie in wait within the SLPP’s constituent socio-political make-up, salivating at the chance to take and be in power again.
Revealingly, Mahinda Rajapaksa’s celebratory messages on Facebook, just after the result and during the week, are only in Sinhala and English. Tamil, even a hint of it, doesn’t feature. This speaks to a singular mindset unchanged in the three years since we last felt its megalomaniacal impulse. Tamils still continue to be marginal, at best, for the SLPP. And by extension, any democratic impulse to recognise and accommodate legitimate Tamil grievances is moot. This was evident in Mahinda Rajapaksa’s statement at the SLPP’s press conference. Pointing to a map of Sri Lanka and the wards the SLPP had won, Rajapaksa noted that even the territory of Eelam had reduced. This is a remarkable statement, even as a Freudian slip. For the former President, the North and East of Sri Lanka are still, predominantly Eelam – or as a reflection of popular Southern imagination, partial to and under the influence of, to date, the violent separatism of the LTTE – militarily defeated nearly ten years ago. The former President continues to frame citizens in these areas as terrorists, violently separatist by nature. What is more interesting is the support he gets for this viewpoint. Over Twitter, Rajiva Wijesinha averred that the reason Rajapaksa declaring Eelam was reduced was because “the people [in these areas] supported a range of viewpoints including the SLPP, not just [a] UNP/TNA combine”. The defence is a curious one, even by Wijesinha’s standards. If the North and East vote for the TNA or UNP, they are justified in being called a territory of Eelam. By contrast, the argument goes, only if they vote in Rajapaksa or now the SLPP do they demonstrate they have eschewed violent separatism and are truly part of Sri Lanka.
This essentially racist mindset is not surprising to associate with the JO and SLPP. It is far more violent when one encounters it in the present government, and soon after last week’s electoral drubbing. No less than Sri Lanka’s Foreign Minister Tilak Marapana, a senior member of the UNP and close to the PM, believes that the party’s poor performance at the local government election was because the Sri Lankan anthem was sung in Tamil on Independence Day. News reports suggest that Marapana believes the Sinhala-Buddhist vote base of the UNP lost fifty-thousand votes every time the Tamil version of the national anthem was sung. How this precise figure was arrived at is anyone’s guess. Couple Marapana’s ridiculous assertion with Government spokesperson Rajitha Senaratne’s view that 55% voted against Mahinda Rajapaksa and that the key take-away for him from the local government election was that the 8th January 2015 mandate was strengthened, and you find a government as I noted on Twitter that doesn’t know what they’ve lost, how they’ve lost or in fact, that they’ve lost.
Thus, it isn’t the potential resurgence authoritarianism and violence that is worrying – or what Prof. Jayadeva Uyangoda calls a ‘democratic setback’ in the event the President and PM fail to agree on a reform agenda moving forward. It is the fact that the political huddle within the SLFP and UNP, to consolidate power, block the other party and stop the haemorrhaging of votes will in intent, focus and execution, match the SLPP’s huddle to consolidate electoral gains. Southern polity’s chief focus henceforth will be driven by a fear of losing more votes in the South, or the interest of recapturing what was lost. Even with the best of outcomes in the form of continued cohabitation and an extension of the Sirisena-Wickremesinghe administration, the window of opportunity for meaningful reform is now comprehensively gone. It is unclear to what degree even incrementalism can succeed, given what will be a deep, enduring hesitation to promote anything radically different to the status quo that can be used or perceived to be ripe for exploitation by the SLPP to whip up angry opposition.
The fun and games have already begun. The SLPP, perhaps privately embarrassed by the violence meted out by the party’s supporters and interested, temporarily, in not alienating a minority vote, now wants an investigation into the anti-Muslim communal riots in Aluthgama, from June 2014. It also distances itself from the BBS. The chutzpah of G.L. Peiris to want an investigation now into events Mahinda Rajapaksa himself, despite promises of redress and robust investigation at the time, didn’t deliver on, is perhaps lost on the majority of who voted for the SLPP. Memories are short, and the existential burden of living under a government that hasn’t delivered on its promises perhaps outweighs what was known and even reviled about the previous regime.
And that’s precisely the point. The SLPP won for the same reason Sirisena was elected to power three years ago. It was a vote in opposition to the incumbents – a score card on their inability to deliver what was expected or promised. It was much less a vote in support of a party or individual. The Sirisena-Wickremesinghe 2015 mandate, in reality, was less about constitutional reform writ large or transitional justice. It was more about bringing to justice those who were corrupt, and visibly eschewing the political culture that defined the Rajapaksa regime. It was about the abolition of the Executive Presidency. In all these efforts, the present government has failed miserably. The SLPP won not because Mahinda Rajapaksa gained new fans. It won because the present government comprehensively lost many who believed in it and voted for it, three years ago, and offers nothing by way of a compelling vision anchored to ground realities. It is pathologically unable to communicate. If voters see no difference between government today and what they endured in the past, it is likely they will go with the known devil, instead of present day leaders who cannot even agree amongst themselves.
It matters little to me therefore about what the President and Prime Minister will say and do in the weeks ahead. The consolidation of power and its negotiation will be whatever the end configuration, to the detriment of genuine reform, the Tamil national question, accountability, meaningful constitutional reform and justice. The jolt of fear around a Rajapaksa resurgence will most likely only result in pandering to the fears of Southern polity and society, instead of crafting public opinion and mature political leadership, that demonstrates by example what it is to not be racist, reductionist or retrogressive. My disappointment with the local government result is not that the SLPP won so much. It is that the government, three years into power, has won so little.
III. C. A. Chandraprema: “Yahapalanaya govt. in tailspin following election defeat …………. Basil Rajapaksa man of the match………….. Sirisena in direct competition with Judas and Vibhishana,” Sunday Island, 18 February 2018
To say that the resounding electoral defeat of the governing coalition at the recent local government elections has set the cat among the canaries is an understatement. Up to the point when this article goes to press, the political aftershocks of the pohottuwa tsunami of February 10 continues with no end in sight. In the immediate aftermath of the defeat apologists for the government have been trying to say that the SLPP got only 45% of the vote and that the votes of all the yahapalana partners of January 2015, still outnumber the votes that Mahinda Rajapaksa got and that therefore, MR would have lost again if the February 10 poll had been a presidential election. The very crisis that shook the political establishment in the aftermath of this election shows that no one, not even the persons mouthing them, was convinced by such arguments. At the 2000, 2001 and 2004 parliamentary elections, governments were formed by political parties that got 45% of the vote. Besides, a local government election is very different to a presidential election. At a presidential election the vote gets polarized between the two main contestants and the others are rendered irrelevant.
But at a local government election, the vote tends to get distributed among a large number of political groups, thus reducing the percentages that the two main political forces get. Furthermore at a local government election, large numbers of people tend to vote on the basis of personal connections rather than strictly on party lines. As there are many thousands of candidates at LG elections, this factor has a major impact on voting patterns. Thus, the 45% that the pohottuwa got at this election could easily translate into a 50% plus vote at a presidential election. Besides the percentage of the SLPP is calculated without the votes they would otherwise have got from the eleven local government institutions where the SLPP nomination papers were rejected. At least six of those were sure wins for the SLPP. In fact in at least four of these institutions where the SLPP nominations were rejected, the phottuwa party did support independent groups and they all won. Those votes have not been counted as belonging to the SLPP in the final count. Furthermore, the mere fact that the pohottuwa won this election at all was as much of a shock as the Brexit vote in the UK where the Brexit camp managed to prevail against the combined party strength of the Conservative, Labour and Social Democratic parties.
In this instance too, the SLPP which emerged as the third force outside the two established parties (UNP and SLFP), managed to soundly defeat both and emerge as Sri Lanka’s most formidable political force. For the SLPP to break away and to contest alone at this election was fraught with danger. The people in this country have been used to a two party system for more than half a century. Party loyalties were strong. This was why the rhetoric of ‘not creating splits in the SLFP’ prevailed in 2015 and the Mahinda Rajapaksa loyalists decided to contest together with the Sirisena led SLFP/UPFA at the last parliamentary elections instead of fielding a separate list. That however led to a kind of Babaylonian captivity of the Rajapaksa camp within the SLFP. Firstly President Sirisena took about 44 MPs who had been elected to parliament under Mahinda Rajapaksa’s leadership on a platform opposed to the yahapalana government and the UNP and used them to prop up the yahapalana government.
The addition of these 44 opposition MPs enabled the government to have a two thirds majority in parliament which had not been given to the yahapalana government by the people. Then the Rajapaksa-led UPFA group in parliament which had over 50 MPs was not given the opposition leadership on the argument that they were a a part of the government under President Maithripala Sirisena’s leadership. On that basis the opposition leadership was given to the TNA and the position of chief opposition whip to the JVP. This led to the situation where both the government and the opposition in parliament were shared between the yahapalana partners who had been on the same side at the 2015 presidential election. This in turn resulted in a situation where the 10-member constitutional council which was in charge of recommending appointments to high state posts and the independent commissions being completely dominated by yahapalanites. Needless to say all the so called independent commissions filled all high positions with yahapalanites during the past three years. What was taking shape was a Third Reich style state. The Joint Opposition was deprived of time to speak in parliament with the JVP with six MPs getting more time to speak than the JO with over 50 MPs.
Massive gamble that paid off: On top of all this was the relentless persecution of opposition politicians with opposition members of parliament being arrested and jailed on the flimsiest of excuses. MPs and even Buddhist monks have been arrested and jailed for participating in protests and they are then released on bail which means if they participate in protests again they will be jailed automatically for violating bail conditions. Never in the history of this country, has there been such draconian suppression of the legitimate opposition in this country.
It was in the middle of all this that the Joint Opposition made the decision to contest separately at this local government election. When this decision was announced, the leaders of the SLFP and UPFA openly threatened members of the JO with disciplinary action and expulsion from their parliamentary seats. In fact disciplinary action had already been initiated with regard to MP Sanath Nishantha from the Puttalam District. In such circumstances, the decision of the Joint Opposition to contest separately was a massive gamble. The only thing the Joint Opposition had going in its favour was the wave of anti-government sentiment building up in the country. That and an unshakable faith in Mahinda Rajapakasa’s public appeal were the only things that sustained the Joint Opposition. The Maithripala Sirisena-led SLFP tried to deprive the Joint Opposition of a part of this as well by masquerading as a part of the opposition to the UNP. SLFP ministers in the government were among the most strident critics of the UNP over the bond scam. Then the President bolstered his anti-UNP credentials by instituting the bond commission which laid bare the entire scam in a way never before been seen in this country with regard to a criminal investigation. After the local government election campaign began, the President himself became more and more strident in his criticism of the UNP which led even some otherwise sensible people to suggest that the JO should strengthen the hands of the President in order to bring the UNP to heel.
It was in this background that the UPFA began negotiations with the Joint Opposition to field one list. The argument in favour of not taking a risk and contesting together with the UPFA was strong. No one knew how the party loyalty factor would play out. Besides, the UPFA representatives were pleading and even trying to worship Prof. Peiris to persuade them to field a single list. It was the decision made by Prof. Peiris and the de facto national organizer of the SLPP Basil Rajapaksa to walk away from that final meeting with the UPFA representatives that enabled them to score what was arguably Sri Lanka’s most sensational election victory. The way it was described by Dilan Perera was that as the discussion dragged on, Professor Peiris had declared that he was literally falling asleep and needed rest and he walked out, and was followed by Basil Rajapaksa. It is because BR and GLP made good their escape that day, that this historic victory was possible. It was Basil Rajapaksa who banded the local government representatives together as a political force supporting the Joint Opposition. The LG representatives of the UPFA could hold their heads high in their villages because of BR’s emphasis on developing village infrastructure. This election result at an organizational level is BR’s victory as much as it is Mahinda Rajapaksa’s victory at leadership level.
Even though the President Sirisena’s representatives wanted to be taken in on to the Joint Opposition list, there was the simple practical impossibility of accommodating them because loud and acrimonious arguments had already broken out among the partners of the Joint Opposition as to who gets how many slots. Nomination time is always full of conflict. To hear obscenities being uttered is not unusual. Even in defeat, nominations are always contentious. In 2015, the then general secretary of the UPFA Susil Premajayantha had to pretend to have a heart attack in order to escape from his office which was surrounded. Even so he was pursued to hospital and made to enlist a candidate while in bed. This time, the unusually fierce scramble for nominations from the SLPP was one of the early signs of the public mood at the ground level. There was the feeling getting nominations from the SLPP was a sure ticket into the local council and this hunch for the most part proved to be right.
One of the main considerations behind the decision to contest separately was that the JO could not appear on the same stage and filed a list with a partner in the very government they were opposing. Having been forced to contest alone, the Sirisena faction of the SLFP threw everything they had into the campaign. Defections from the Joint Opposition were engineered, their biggest catch being parliamentarian Weerakumara Dissanayake of the JNP. Defections even of some candidates who had got nomination from the SLPP were engineered. All the meetings of the UPFA were well attended with what looked like enthusiastic crowds. In the fact the UPFA rallies were far bigger than anything that the UNP could organize. So much so that MR was asked on TV interviews whether he thinks the UPFA is really with him. The fact that the UPFA had the presidency and the most powerful ministries in the government combined with the other factors mentioned above made some people feel that they would be able to put on a better show than expected.
On top of all that was the fact that Sirisena was furiously attacking the UNP so as to convey the impression to the UPFA voter that he was going to ditch the UNP and form a UPFA led government. In the run up to the election, Arjun Aloysius and Kasun Palisena of Perpetual Treasuries were arrested to bolster Sirisena’s anti-corruption credentials. There was nothing else that Sirisena could do other than arresting and jailing Ranil Wickremesinghe himself. With all that President Sirisena failed and came a poor third. If he was not able to prevail over Mahinda Rajapaksa with all of the above, then he is a political write off. To say that the yahapalana partners are reeling with shock at the result of this election would be an understatement. For the past week after the conclusion of that election, there has been literally no government in the country with both the Sirisena faction and the UNP thrashing around in their search for survival strategies. For Sirisena, the only survival strategy available is to seek an accommodation with the SLPP.
Finishing off one adversary at a time: The whole of the past week, Sirisena was engaged in an open struggle to dump Ranil Wickremesinghe and to have Nimal Siripala de Silva appointed as the prime minister with the support of the Joint Opposition, the Muslim parties and some defectors from the UNP. That such a thought would have even crossed Sirisena’s mind shows what his character is like. The Joint Opposition for its part would of course be happy to avail themselves of the opportunity to get rid of their main rival. In the yahapalana camp, it’s still the UNP that has the votes. If Sirisena ejects the UNP from the government, there will be a massive collapse in the party and the main rival of the SLPP would have been finished off and they can later have the Sirisena faction for desert. Besides, the Joint Opposition needs to be able to tell the public that they have fully cooperated in all attempts to get rid of the UNP. So now the Joint Opposition has given an open assurance of support if the SLFP wants to oust the UNP.
As we go to press, an uneasy calm prevails after the prime minister addressed the nation and said he is staying on. According to the 19th Amendment, the President cannot simply dismiss the prime Minister the way he dismissed the UPFA ‘s Prime Minister D.M.Jayaratne in January 2015 to make way for Ranil Wickremesinghe. Now a vote of no confidence will have to be passed to get rid of the PM. This will be messier than simply sacking the PM. If they fail to sack the PM, the present government will continue but one wonders how Sirisena and Ranil can sit in the same cabinet after the events of the past week. The fate of the SLFP ministers in the government also hangs in the balance. If their attempted coup against Ranil Wickremesinghe fails, will they be able to serve in the same cabinet under Ranil for the next two years? These SLFP ministers were very keen to enjoy their ministerial perks especially because they had the best ministries which is why they refused to give up their positions and to join the opposition before the elections. Today, even though they make noises about going into the opposition if Ranil Wickremesinghe remains as PM, it is unlikely that they will do so.
As for the joint opposition, they too are treading a fine line in all this. When the UPFA asks them for help to oust Ranil, they are obliged to offer their support because defeating the proposed new constitution, ECTA and the halting of the privatization of state assets are nationally important goals. To say that they will provide the numbers necessary to overthrow the UNP but will not accept any portfolios in the SLFP government that is to be set up is also the correct thing to do because the Podujana Peramuna should not get tainted with the doings of this extremely unpopular government. With the highest ever annual repayments of foreign loans due this year and the next, due to the 15.1 billion USD foreign currency commercial loans that this government recklessly took over the past three years, these are going to be trying times even in the best of circumstances. Today without a properly functioning government in place, things are going to be really bad. For the SLPP to go and jump into the saddle at this stage will be suicidal. However they cannot avoid helping any party that is seeking to oust the UNP from power.
Sirisena’s moral fibre: That the SLPP would want to oust the UNP by helping the SLFP to show a majority in parliament is understandable. The SLPP is not under any kind of obligation to the UNP. Indeed the latter has been persecuting the former for the past three years and anything that the SLPP does to oust the UNP can be justified. Even in his address to the nation last Friday, Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe was talking about establishing special courts to try members of the former regime. This in a situation where his closest associates have been implicated in the bond scam which is infinitely greater than anything that can be ascribed to the former regime. Two top business figures have already been jailed and Arjuna Mahendran is facing arrest the moment he sets foot in Sri Lanka. Despite all this, RW is still talking about putting his political opponents in jail. So anything that the SLPP does to undermine the UNP is fully justified. However the same cannot be said of the UNP’s partner in crime, Maithripala Sirisena who was elected largely on a UNP vote.
According to the calculations of this writer, about 67% of the votes that he received were from the UNP with the rest being from allies ranging from Mano Ganesan, P.Digambaram to the Muslim parties, the TNA and the JVP. Having become president largely on UNP votes, he thought nothing against doing his best to undermine the UNP at the local government elections. Now after it has once again been proved that the majority of yahapalana votes are with the UNP, Sirisena is attempting to expel the UNP from the government. These are not the kind of maneuvers that one expects from a head of state especially after a national election which has clearly shown that the people desire a change of government. It is certainly true that if Sirisena does nothing and continues with the UNP-SLFP coalition government, he will be faced with a humiliating defeat in 2019 and beyond. That however is going to be his fate anyway. By first betraying Mahinda Rajapaksa and then betraying Ranil Wickremesinghe, he has shown himself to be devoid of any principles or scruples.
The person squarely responsible for the present situation of the country is finally Ranil Wickremesinghe himself who allowed himself to be persuaded to ‘lend out’ the presidential candidateship of the UNP to unprincipled backstabbers even though in 2014 there was a visible trend in favour of the UNP at the provincial council elections held that year. That trend has now gone in the opposite direction after the people were given a clear demonstration that the present day UNP is not the UNP of old. Nobody in his right mind will now say that the UNP can run the government or the economy.