Power struggle keeps Sri Lanka rudderless

ECONOMYNEXT – President Maithripala Sirisena’s failure to dislodge Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe could have damaged their relationship permanently with devastating consequences for the national unity government.

With most protagonists acknowledging that the failed April 4 no-confidence motion (NCM) was fuelled by Sirisena, a fractured United National Party (UNP) has rallied to support Wickremesinghe despite his lacklustre leadership.

The Economynext political correspondent weighs the prospects for both Sirisena and the man who propelled him to power — Ranil Wickremesinghe — as the country heads for the next president election amid uncertainty.

Options for Sirisena: Severely weakened by his failure to topple Wickremesinghe through the NCM on April 4, Sirisena could try to mend fences with a non-confrontationist prime minister or go all out on the offensive.

However, as the NCM further split his faction of the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) with 16 MPs saying they will join the Rajapaksa-faction, Sirisena’s leadership of the party has been seriously undermined.

One way of rallying all sections of the SLFP would be to declare an all-out offensive against the UNP, block the work of the UNP-led government, refuse to cooperate with the UNP on making cabinet and other key appointments.

Another course open to Sirisena is to shed the SLFP leadership, become politically neutral, recommit to the original 2015 mandate for reforms and cut a deal with the UNP to seek re-election in 2019 as the common candidate.

For Prime Minister Wickremesinghe, the options are limited as he does not have overriding executive powers despite the 19th amendment to the constitution taking away the power of the president to prematurely sack the legislature.

Wickremesinghe could insist on forming a government with only UNP ministers and their closest allies, but constitutionally, such a move will not be possible without the concurrence of the President.

He could also attempt to engineer the defections of at least seven SLFP MP’s to ensure that the UNP and its allies on their own will command 113 seats in the 225-member parliament to ensure greater stability.





However, that would place Wickremesinghe on a direct path of confrontation with Sirisena who can make life more difficult for the UNP-led administration by adopting an obstructionist stance.

The likely outcome: Since neither Sirisena nor Wickremesinghe have the constitutional power or the strength in parliament to take any drastic action against each other, both are likely to maintain the status quo.

Sirisena will try to cling to the leadership of the SLFP while the majority of the party deserts him and joins the Joint Opposition openly led by his nemesis Mahinda Rajapaksa. The more time and energy he spends on the futile exercise of taking control of the SLFP, more members will abandon his sinking ship.

Wickremesinghe will resort to his trademark softly-softly approach that will only revive criticism of his leadership which is already increasingly under threat as the country approaches the 2019 presidential polls. Wickremesinghe is safe for the time being because there is no credible candidate to take his place.

The failure of the dual leadership of the president and the prime minister will have far reaching consequences for the administration.

The inability of the police to successfully prosecute many of the high profile individuals accused of huge corruption and even murder during the former regime will undermine public confidence and compound problems for both leaders.

Both Sirisena and Wickremesinghe stand accused of obstructing some high profile investigations due to political expediency while the lack of progress in other cases has also led to polarisation within the criminal justice system.

Police investigators have privately expressed fears that they may be hounded in the event of a sudden change of government while some have been threatened with dire consequences should Rajapaksa return to power.

Given the political stalemate in the country, the administration is likely to drift while the political establishment will remain listless with no clear succession plan either for the UNP or the SLFP ahead of the 2019 elections. (COLOMBO, April 24, 2018)

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