Sri Lanka drifts as leaders remain at loggerheads

ECONOMYNEXT – Simmering tensions between Sri Lanka President Maithripala Sirisena and his senior coalition partner have degenerated into a public slanging match, but neither side have the power to subdue the other.

President Sirisena’s frustrations at barbs from United National Party (UNP) back benchers was shown on Friday when he made an emotional speech which warned his critics that their actions could backfire.

Sirisena also suggested that he could resign and lead a battle against corruption if the UNP was to repeat or exceed the level of corruption practiced by the defeated Mahinda Rajapaksa regime.

UNP’s International Trade State Minister Sujeewa Senasinghe has openly accused Sirisena of a conspiracy to destroy the UNP, the party that helped him to win the January 2015 presidential election.

EconomyNext’s political correspondent discusses the options for Sri Lankan leaders and the likely direction that events will take.

Best case: Both sides tone down their rhetoric. President Sirisena and Prime Minister Wickremesinghe put up a united front. Sirisena will end his attempt to enter into a pact with the breakaway Rajapaksa-faction of the SLFP and instead have an electoral arrangement with the UNP to contest the January 2018 local council elections.

This would be the continuation of the "national unity" administration they formed in 2015. The UNP and SLFP Maithri-faction will ensure power sharing at local level too and push the Rajapaksa-faction to the opposition in local bodies. P

Prime Minister Wickremesinghe would assure President Sirisena that they will continue the same arrangement at the 2020 national elections too. The two sides will work towards adopting a new constitution to ensure reconciliation and grant greater autonomy to minority Tamils to ensure ethnic peace. 

The two will come together to pressure the attorney general and the police to step up investigations into corruption and have several high profile individuals of the former regime behind bars as promised in their 2015 election manifestos.

Worst case:
Both sides escalate the rhetoric against each other till it becomes untenable for both to remain in the national unity government. Sirisena and Wickremesinghe formally part ways leaving the UNP at the mercy of the Tamil National Alliance (16 seats) and the JVP (six seats).

The UNP with its 106 seats in parliament forms a coalition with the TNA. The JVP also supports the coalition and press for harsh action against members of the Rajapaksa-regime as well as Sirisena’s family members accused of corruption.





Sirisena and Wickremesinghe will disagree on reforms. Reconciliation efforts hit a standstill. The constitutional council ends abruptly with no sign of a new constitution to address the country’s ethnic issue. Sri Lanka fails to meet its international obligations on human rights. Sri Lanka moves towards regaining its pariah status.

The likely outcome in the short term: The Prime Minister and the President agree to rein in their guard dogs and patch up differences. Sirisena’s attempt to form a coalition with the Rajapaksa-faction falters.

Sirisena looks for a fall back electoral arrangement with the UNP to ensure that the Rajapaksa-faction is kept out of power from local councils. Sirisena’s manoeuvring to block high profile arrests will demoralise investigators and prosecutions will move at the current snail’s pace.

Talks on a new constitution will drag with little or no tangible progress in reconciliation, accountability or political reforms. The country will be on a malfunctioning auto-pilot as the government will avoid taking any bold decisions in respect of the economy and the ethnic issue.

The tenure of the government, however, is guaranteed by the 19th amendment which prevents the president sacking parliament. (COLOMBO, November 26, 2017)

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