Sri Lanka’s simmering crisis spells bad news for PM
ECONOMYNEXT – The simmering tensions within the unity government has already undermined its ambitious political reforms and cleared the way for opposition manoeuvring to engineer defections and topple the Prime Minister.
Insiders say there had been a lukewarm response to attempts at repairing the damage after President Maithripala Sirisena’s October 12 outburst against institutions under Premier Ranil Wickremesinghe’s administration.
President Sirisena accused two institutions directly under the government — the Financial Crimes Investigations Division (FCID) and the Criminal Investigations Division (CID) — and the independent Bribery Commission of partisan action.
The Presidential shot was seen as a direct attack on Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe who initiated the FCID and appointed Dilrukshi Wickramasinghe as the head of the bribery commission.
In what many commentators saw as an act of defiance, Premier Wickremesinghe responded to the President’s polemics by releasing a photo of himself savouring gourmet chocolates in Geneva in the company of Minister Sagala Ratnayake.
But, The Prime Minister may not have realised that his support base was slowly melting and the damning report of the Committee on Public Enterprises (COPE) had further emboldened a joint opposition.
At least one key figure who secretly worked behind the scenes to secure Sirisena’s defection from the Rajapaksa government in November 2014 was now involved in bringing an SLEF-led government under the President.
The low-profile individual has been working for quite some time to bring about rapproachement between rival factions within the SLFP in order to topple Wickremesinghe’s United National Party (UNP) government.
Numerically, Wickremesinghe’s UNP-led government has 107 seats in the 225-member parliament, but is still short of six seats to have an absolute majority on their own.
The current unity government has 34 MPs from Sirisena’s faction of the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) but their loyalty is not with Wickremesinghe and can shift easily if Sirisena forms a new government.
A united SLFP can count on 94 MPs and needs just another 19 MPs to take control of parliament, a move many Rajapaksa-faction members think is a possibility, albeit a difficult one.
In the event of President Sirisena forming his own SLFP government, he can count on his own loyalists such as ministers Rajitha Senaratne, Champika Ranawaka and Arjuna Ranatunga who contested under the UNP.
Deputy Minister Karu Paranavithana is also seen as a Sirisena loyalist who contested the August 2015 elections as a UNP member. So are Chathura Senaratne (son of minister Rajitha Senaratne) and Hirunika Premachandra.
Ten Muslim MPs who are with the UNP could also switch loyalties in the event of a change of government. Such a move could change the balance of power in parliament giving a Sirisena-led government 110.
It can also count on the EPDP’s Douglas Devananda which means they need to engineer just two defections from the UNP to form a government.
Although in theory, securing two lawmakers from the UNP may not be too costly, but keeping the SLFP-led United People’s Freedom Alliance (UPFA) coalition in tact will be a challenge.
The UPFA includes three Rajapaksas — Mahinda, Chamal and Namal — and many within the UPFA would be ready to form a government, but without the tainted Rajapaksas.
Political sources said a dignified exit for Mahinda and political accommodation for his son could be a compromise worked out by desperate SLFP stalwarts keen to avoid FCID, CID and Bribery inquiries against them by returning to power.
The President’s remarks on October 12 have emboldened the attempts to form an SLFP-led government.
The 19th amendment to the constitution does not allow the president to sack the prime minister and invite someone else to form a government. That is why Sirisena requires 113 seats in parliament to bring a no-trust vote against Wickremesinghe.
However, political sources said the Premier was confident of retaining his majority and was pushing ahead with his sweeping economic reform plans.
In 2004, Wickremesinghe underestimated the power of the then president and was taken completely unawares when Chandrika Kumaratunga sacked his government and called a snap election, which he lost.
Sources within the government said the October 12 statement by the President Sirisena meant that they would be forced to put political reforms in the back burner while reconciliation and accountability issues may not be pursued.
"You need political stability to push such controversial reforms," a source said. "This is not the time to attempt any of that. On the constitutional reforms, we will not proceed beyond the 19th amendment. Forget about accountability for war crimes. "
However, a senior government minister privately said that neither the president nor the prime minister would make any move against each other and are likely to maintain the status quo until the next general election in 2020.
"Both should realise that they cannot work without the other. The mutually assured destruction will keep them together," he said.
However, political sources say an emboldened opposition has become more active thanks to the President’s October 12 public statement which he later reconfirmed in an interview with a Sinhala-language weekly.
Civil society activists led by Sarath Wijesuriya who played a key role in ensuring Sirisena’s victory have publicly declared that President Sirisena had become a hostage of the military intelligence and was working against the January 2015 "revolution."
They reminded Sirisena, a low profile figure at the time, that he was chosen as a figurehead to rally civil society groups as well as parities such as the UNP and the JVP to topple the much maligned Rajapaksa family rule and return the country to rule of law. While the UNP campaign for his victory, the party that he is now leading tried its best to defeat him and retain the Rajapaksa regime.
Dejected civil society activists are staging rallies from this week to express their disappointment with Sirisena. (COLOMBO, Nov 1, 2016)