Listless Sri Lanka unity government gropes for direction: scenario analysis

ECONOMYNEXT – Forcing Foreign Minister Ravi Karunanayake to step down avoided a showdown between the President and the Prime Minister, but the duo faces more challenges as their listless coalition looks for direction.

President Maithripala Sirisena had his way when Karunanayake was forced out after he was linked to controversial bond trader Arjun Aloysius, but the troubles have escalated to a new level within the coalition.

A source close to the President said he was keen to sack Justice Minister Wijeyadasa Rajapaksha since mid-last year when civil society organisations told him that he was blocking prosecutions of members of the former regime.

Good governance activists had wanted the justice minister and the head of military intelligence Tuan Suresh Sallay removed, but only Sally was sacked as the Prime Minister defended his justice minister.

With Karunanayake’s removal, pressure was mounting from within the United National Party, the senior partner in the coalition, to expel the justice minister who is accused of being Mahinda Rajapaksa’s mole in the cabinet.

"Ranil protected Wijayadasa in May when he was due to be kicked out," the source said. "The prime minister’s argument was that if two are kicked out at the same time, they could form a clique and cause problems for him."

Wijeyadasa has drawn the ire of his UNP collegues and the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) faction loyal to Sirisena by declaring he will not allow former defence secretary Gotabhaya Rajapaksa to be arrested.

The once-all-powerful Gotabhaya Rajapaksa has been linked to death squads which targeted journalists, including Sunday Leader Editor Lasantha Wickrematunga, and other political opponents when his brother was president.

Our Political Correspondent takes a look at options for the two leaders and possible outcomes for Sri Lanka as it grapples with internal strife within the so-called unity government.

Main options for President Sirisena:

1) Win back public support by sacking Rajapaksha and entrusting the justice ministry to an efficient minister to speed up prosecutions of members of the former regime.





2) Take over the justice ministry and run it through a deputy minister loyal to him together with a secretary who can also be controlled directly by the presidential secretariat. This will send a powerful message to the UNP part of his government that he means business. This could cause more problems with Prime Minister Wickremesinghe who has little leverage over the executive.

3) Maintain the status quo by taking no action. This could strengthen the assertion of the Rajapaksa-faction of the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) that he is weak. This could lead to erosion of his own base within the SLFP.

Main options for Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe

1) Address the internal crisis by requesting the sacking of the justice minister so that the removal is seen as disciplinary action the party takes against a renegade. This would sendsa powerful message to the UNP and put pressure on the President to take similar action against SLFP ministers facing corruption allegations.

2). Appoint a bipartisan ministerial committee to decide on the justice minister and delay the problem. It will be a trademark Ranil tactic to buy time and side-step the issue.

3). Call for a dissolution of parliament and hope that a fresh election will give him an absolute majority in the 225-member parliament where he is short of six seats to cross the 113 halfway point. This will also neutralise the Joint Opposition which is demanding local council elections.

Best Case: The President and the Prime Minister agree to ease out Justice minister Rajapaksha and make him a minister without a portfolio. Mount pressure on Law and Order minister Sagala Ratnayake to speed up police investigations and ensure that at least the 10 high profile cases already identified are brought to court within three months. Prime Minister Wickremesinghe calls for a snap parliamentary election hoping to capitalise on the split within the SLFP so that his UNP can win an outright majority in the next parliament.

Worst case: President Sirisena exercises executive powers to take over the Justice ministry  even though the 19th amendment is not clear if he has the power to do so without the "advice" of the Prime Minister. Nevertheless, he will go ahead under paragraph 40 (3) of the 19th amendment which says:

"The President may at any time change the assignment of subjects and functions and the composition of the Cabinet of Ministers. Such changes shall not affect the continuity of the Cabinet of Ministers and the continuity of its responsibility to Parliament."

What is likely to happen:
Justice Minister Rajapaksha will be eased out as the Prime Minister comes under pressure from his own party to take decisive action against him for breaching collective cabinet responsibility.

A reluctant Wickremesinghe agrees. Despite calls for more High Courts, there will be no movement in that direction and the Attorney General’s department will function at its current level of efficiency much to the frustration of good governance activists who propelled Sirisena to power in January 2015.

Despite the rudderless nature of the administration, the stability of the government is guaranteed by the 19th amendment which prevents the president sacking parliament. The UNP will also not have enough support in parliament to undermine the president. The dual leadership will continue to trouble the country. (COLOMBO, August 19, 2017)

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