President Maithripala Sirisena returned from a state visit to Bangladesh on Saturday to grapple with a new threat of defections that could lead to a break-up of his shaky coalition government.
A week after issuing an ultimatum to two ministers to deliver or depart, the President himself has been put on notice by his own Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) which wants him to dissolve the coalition or face a mass exodus.
At a meeting just before leaving for Bangladesh on his three-day state visit, several seniors of the SLFP said they wanted to leave the coalition ahead of local elections later this year unless the President formed an SLFP government before that.
The SLFP and its allies won 94 seats at the August 2015 elections and the group is deeply split between those loyal to Sirisena and former president Mahinda Rajapaksa. Even if there is a complete rapprochement between Sirisena and Rajapaksa, they need 19 more MPs to cross the half-way mark in the 225-member parliament and enjoy a majority.
With no other likely candidates to bank on, the unlikely Sirisena-Rajapaksa combine will have to engineer defections from the UNP, a difficult ask despite there being dissatisfied elements within the green party.
An SLFP ministerial source said the President’s July 4 warning to two UNP ministers – Sagala Ratnayake and Wijeyadasa Rajapakshe – to clean up their act within three months had emboldened some SLFP senior to call for action to dismiss the entire UNP government.
They want Sirisena to do to the UNP what president Chandrika Kumaratunga did to Ranil Wickremesinghe’s UNP-led cohabitation government in 2004. Kumaratunga sacked Wickremesinghe’s government just two years into its six-year term and called fresh elections which she won with the support of the JVP.
However, under the 19th amendment to the constitution, President Sirisena cannot dismiss the current parliament until early 2020. Kumaratunga had come to power with her own mandate unlike Sirisena who was propelled largely through UNP votes.
More than a dozen SLFP ministers and deputies have already said they will leave when the two-year national unity government memorandum of understanding ends in September. However, should they carry out their threat, there is no immediate danger to the administration.
The coalition could break up, but the UNP-led government could end up in a stronger position as it will no longer have to balance its economic agenda to appease the ideologically different SLFP.