The UNP-SLFP coalition – an uneasy marriage  

The UNP-SLFP coalition – an uneasy marriage  

Supporters of former Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa march during a rally to mark International Labor Day

There are just five months to determine the fate of the marriage between the United National Party (UNP) and the Sri Lanka Freedom Party- Sirisena (SLFP-S) which came into being following the election of President Maithripala Sirisena as the ‘common candidate’ of the UNP-led coalition in the January 08, 2015 Presidential poll. The coalition’s fate is to be decided by December 31 of this year, when the agreement that brought it into being expires. On the face of it, the cohabitation of the two parties may not last its full five-year term. But senior sections of the SLFP-S are calling for a renewal of the two-year agreement, as previously envisaged, so that the National Unity Government could plod on until the parliamentary elections of 2020 August, thus ensuring the much-needed political stability.

However, the younger members of the SLFP feel that the longer they stay in a UNP-led coalition, the worse it is for their political future as many SLFP voters are still loyal to former President Mahinda Rajapaksa. At present, political power within the government is exercised primarily by the UNP and in particular a small coterie led by Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe, which is a major irritant to SLFP members. Meanwhile it is the view of some veteran SLFP-ers loyal to President Sirisena that quitting the government now will only strengthen the UNP which will be able to get some SLFP MPs to cross over and thus rule comfortably for the rest of the parliament’s term. The UNP is the single largest party in parliament now.

Currently the SLFP is divided into the Rajapaksa and Sirisena factions. President Mathripala Sirisena, who formally heads the SLFP (which is with the government), and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe, who heads the UNP-led United National Front (UNF), are compelled by necessity to continue the alliance till the next elections in 2020. Amidst concern by the private sector on the stability of the government in the wake of daily protests by diverse groups that have crippled daily life in the country, State Minister of Finance Eran Wickramaratne told business leaders on Thursday that the Government would serve the full term.

“One thing you can be sure is, it doesn’t matter who is on the street; this Government will continue for its full term at least until February 2020 when it will be completing four-and-a-half years,” Wickramaratne told the Ceylon Chamber Economic Summit.

However, the reality is replete with intrigue. The SLFP break-away faction which is led by former President Mahinda Rajapaksa is prompting the feeling that the SLFP is being severely tarnished by the UNP. This is costing the party the traditional SLFP voters, whose overall allegiance is with Rajapaksa, an SLFP strongman and former chairman of the SLFP who with reluctance passed on the reins of the party to Sirisena following the latter’s victory in the Presidential election.

The serious allegations of corruption and financial malpractice within key members of the current government, such as those against Minister of Foreign Affairs Ravi Karunanayake, (who is a senior UNP-er) have worsened the image of the unity government, particularly the leadership of Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe. The corruption allegations surrounding Karunanayake concerns his role in the Sri Lanka Central Bank bond scam when he was serving as Finance Minister under the present regime. Currently, leaders of Rajapaksa’s Joint Opposition are having discussions on bringing in another no-confidence motion against minister Karunanayake. The previous no confidence motion brought against Karunanayake in June 2016 was defeated in parliament. The no-faith motion of 2016 had stated that the Minister had misled the House with inaccurate information on the economy as well as the finances of the country and held the minister responsible for the economic crisis in the country.

In this backdrop, the SLFP-ers currently with President Sirisena are jittery about facing elections in the Sabragamuwa, North Central and Eastern Provinces, which are likely to be held early next year and the local government elections to be held at the end of this year. The acute failure by the current government to deliver the promised good governance and fight corruption has accelerated the pace of Rajapaksa’s popularity. Overall, within the SLFP, the pressure is on Sirisena to tie up with the Rajapaksa-led Joint Opposition in parliament and set up an SLFP-led government with some defectors from the UNP-led UNF.

What is to be seen is how President Sirisena will evolve. In the background of Rajapaksa’s issuing repetitive statements warning the country against the government’s alleged pandering to the West, Sirisena last week, appealed to his SLFP-ers to stay with him at least till the expiry of the UNP-SLFP pact on December 31.

President Sirisena although trying to compete with Rajapaksa by appealing to the Buddhist masses with occasional lambasting of NGOs and issuing periodic pro military statements, nevertheless desperately needs the current coalition. Meanwhile, one of the serious complaints from Sirisena against the UNP is that it is not moving in a decisive manner against the Rajapaksas in the corruption charges against them, leading to rumours that there is a tactical understanding between Wickremesinghe and Rajapaksa. Sirisena has openly accused Wickremsinghe of having a secret deal with Rajapaksa. However, if corruption charges are accelerated now against the Rajapaksas it will merely make the current government look severely hypocritical as it has amassed many allegations of corruption and extravagance in the past two years.

Prime Minister Wickremesinghe for his part, although silent on his inaction on the corruption allegations of the Rajapaksas, has urged sustaining of the coalition for the cause of development of the country and has reiterated the pledge to give good governance (which has unfortunately paled beyond all comprehension).

The current regime’s plans for development and liberalization are faced with an increasing menace of trade union strikes. This week saw a crippling fuel strike that resulted in Sri Lanka deploying troops and police to distribute fuel after petroleum workers protested over plans to sell off some stakes in state-owned oil depots to India and China.

The government, cash trapped and yet profligate, is becoming unpopular with each passing day due to the sweeping ultra liberalization measures taken on the advice of bodies such as World Bank and IMF. Major tax reforms are expected to be presented to parliament in August through the proposed Inland Revenue Bill that is largely seen as having a negative effect on the business climate of the country.

Meanwhile, the pro-Rajapaksa elements in the Sirisena faction want to contest the coming local and provincial elections as a coalition with the Rajapaksa set. Sirisena’s core supporters want to go it alone independently of the Rajapaksa clan and the UNP. Importantly, if these elections are held before December 31 and the result is negative for the SLFP (Sirisena faction) as well as the UNP, the coalition between the two will become unstable.

A victory for the Rajapaksa faction in the provincial or local government elections would impose a major psychological effect, creating an obvious strong platform for the Rajapaksas to campaign in the presidential and parliamentary elections of 2020. Importantly, a notable tilt of victory or defeat of either of the groups could lead to defections, weakening the side defeated in the provincial or local government polls. If the UNP-led UNF captures power it will get a free hand to rule in its pro-West fashion and alienate itself further from the Sinhala majority community by the time of the next presidential and parliamentary elections. This will facilitate a virtual clean sweep for any member of the Rajapaksa clan who wishes to contest for the top office in 2020.

Meanwhile, from the lens of Tamil politicians, whether the coalition will survive or not will be seen in what happens in the ongoing constitution-making process. The Tamils who make around 11 percent of the population (and voted en masse for Sirisena) see the constitution making process as one that has been mandated by the people when electing the current government. In comparison, the Sinhala Buddhist population largely fed by the Rajapaksa fear psychosis propaganda are unaware of the need and details of the constitutional amendments to make an informed choice.

The constitutional reforms are being touted by Rajapaksa, his Joint Opposition as well as the Buddhist hierarchy (known as the Mahanayakas) as one that will threaten the unity of the country as well as the status given to Buddhism as the main religion of the island. Overall, there is not much enthusiasm among the Sinhala polity for ushering in a new constitution, with factions of the SLFP wary against drafting a new constitution and wanting to make do, in a worse-case scenario, with only some amendments to the existing one. Although there are no visible die-hard opponents of the new constitution among the UNP, the recent opposition to the constitution by the Mahanayakes would make the UNP toe a watchful line keeping in mind that they too are competing for the vote of Sri Lanka’s 75% Buddhist majority which currently seems to be largely with Rajapaksa.

The role of the international community in Lankan politics cannot be dismissed lightly. In the absence of a clear policy for post war reconciliation and attending to the grievances of Lankan Tamils soon after the end of the war in 2009, the Tamil community took refuge in seeking redress from the West and the UN, with the overall result being that Sri Lanka is currently saddled with calls for international courts to be set up for war crimes tribunals. Interestingly it is the UN and other Western nations that give fodder to Rajapaksa for his regular statements warning Lanka of being governed according to Western agendas and this will have a serious impact on the elections that are being held in the country as well as the continuance of the SLFP- UNP alliance.

In general, the chances of the coalition surviving beyond December 31 is likely to be bleak given the daily politically intrigues. Meanwhile, although under the 19th amendment passed in 2015 no President can contest for the third term and thereby Rajapaksa cannot become President, there is a possibility of him coming in as Prime Minister in 2020. Sirisena sees Rajapaksa’s coming back (in any capacity of power) as life threatening. It is the current speculation that Rajapaksa’s long term return could possibly be routed through his brother, the powerful former Defense Secretary, Gotabhaya Rajapaksa, who is currently the most likely to contest for a post such as President.