Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe demonstrated a clear victory Wednesday night getting a majority of votes to easily defeating the No Confidence Motion (NCM) bought against him by the Joint Opposition of former President Mahinda Rajapaksa. His victory was sealed with a comprehensive majority of 46 votes. Following the parliamentary debate throughout Wednesday, the voting that commenced at 9.30 pm saw 122 members voting against the NCM, 76 voting in favour and 26 members absent. The House has a total strength of 225 members including the Speaker. Former President Mahinda Rajapaksa who was absent during the debate, voted in favor of the motion, along with his brother MP Chamal Rajapaksa and son MP Namal Rajapaksa.
Meanwhile, the Joint Opposition (JO) of Mahinda Rajapaksa, the architects of the NCM, got only 76 votes although they should have got at least 95 or even 101. There was cross voting across party lines as many MPs, including Ministers, of the SLFP voted for the NCM, but more MPs of the SLFP voted against it, supporting the Prime Minister.
With this victory by Wickremesinghe and his United National Party, the melodrama of intrigue exhibited by members of the Joint Opposition of the former President and the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) of the current President upto to the 11th hour is ended. The Prime Minister is to meet President Maithripala Sirisena today (Thursday) to decide the future of the government . Upto Tuesday the SLFP led by President Maithripala Sirisena was vociferous for Wickremesinge to resign and Sirisena himself was seen as a supporter of these calls. With Wednesday’s victory for the UNP, Wickremesinghe clinches a badge of power over Sirisena who a day after demanding the PM’s resignation will see his own power and even that of the SLFP (who was largely ideologically with the Rajapaksa camp even if a section of them abstained or in last minute change of heart voted against the NCM) diminished in the coalition regime for the next two years they have left to rule.
The victory for the UNP was not a crazy hat trick. The UNP had by last week taken a unanimous decision to defeat the NCM, with even UNP dissidents being won over, while the Tamil National Alliance, the Sri Lanka Muslim Congress, the All Ceylon Makkal Congress, the Tamil Progressive Alliance and the Jathika Hela Urumaya had also by Tuesday decided to vote against the NCM. These parties represented different ideologies in governance but overall saw the former President Mahinda Rajapaksa, the key architect of the NCM as a common enemy. The Muslim and Tamil parties which do not see eye to eye with the former President on issues connected with issues on minority rights were expected to vote to defeat the motion.
The SLFP which is a partner in the UNP led coalition regime, was divided despite the clear indication that voting with the Joint Opposition with seriously destabilize the government. Just prior to the debate commencing Wednesday morning State Minister and senior SLFPer A. H. M. Fowzie told the media that the SLFP had decided to abstain from voting only to be contradicted minutes later by fellow SLFPer and Minister Lakshman Yapa Abeywardena who told journalists that the SLFP MPs had decided to vote in favour of the NCM. Meanwhile, the Marxist JVP had announced before the voting that they would vote for the NCM.
Meanwhile, the Leader of the Opposition R. Sampanthan speaking during the debate said that the motion of No-Confidence seeks to implicate the prime minister with the bond scam and that the wording of the motion and the timing of the motion are indicative of a pursuit of a political agenda rather than fixing responsibility with regard to the bond scam. “This bond scam occurred three years ago, and it has been the subject of public focus for a long time, so why has this NCM brought against the PM only now? This is a plan to bring down, totally and completely, the present government,” he said.
Anura Kumara Dissanayake, head of the JVP said that their stand to vote for the NCM was mainly on account of the corruption charges that are connected with the NCM. Dissanayake said he was aware of the strength that voting for this NCM would give the Rajapaksas (the JVP opposes the former President) but stated that it was the Prime Minister himself who is responsible for giving this strength to Rajapaksa by protecting him and failing to comprehensively defeat the former President. The core emphasis by Dissanayake was on the Central Bank scam that lost the country billions for which the Prime Minister is found fault with for appointing as the former Central Bank governor Arjuna Mahendran who in early 2015 was part of the scam together with his son-in-law.
Rauf Hakeem, the head of the Sri Lanka Muslim Congress (SLMC) whose party voted to defeat the NCM said that they did not agree with the attempt by the Joint Opposition to take political mileage through the NCM. Among the points mentioned in the No Confidence Motion was the failure to contain anti Muslim riots that spread in Kandy early March this year when Wickremesinghe briefly held the portfolio of Minister of Law and Order. However, the SLMC leader, Rauf Hakeem said that although the Muslim community suffered due to the riots, and that although the SLMC had confronted the Premier on the matter, that the party did not see it as fair to take political mileage out of it. “The Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP) is attempting to take advantage of the sufferings of the Muslim people and are trying to use it to influence the Muslim MPs. The suffering of the Muslims is used as just another factor to manipulate. The shock, the suffering and the damages of the Muslim community has been used to compel Muslim MPs to vote against the Prime Minister,” he said.
Meanwhile the debate saw SLFP stalwarts speak for the NCM, lambasting Wickremesinghe. Susil Premajayantha, a Minister with the UNP-SLFP coalition government and a senior SLFPer vociferously condemned Prime Minister Wickremesinghe as the appointer and protector of former Central Bank Governor Arjuna Mahendran. Also, responding to the speech by Tamil National Alliance MP, M. A. Sumanthiran, Premajayantha vehemently declared that there was no mandate for the coalition regime to change the constitution and that attempts to divide the country would not be tolerated. The Tamil National Alliance (TNA) MP Sumanthiran focused in his speech on the need for inclusion of minorities and their rights so that Sri Lanka could be called a united country, and stated that there was a clear mandate that the government got ‘to draft and adopt a new constitution for the country, a new social contract that all the people of the country can for the first time agree upon.’ Sumanthiran also stated in his speech that steps for the betterment of the Tamils, promised by the government in 2015, are still not implemented and 9 years after the war ended issues such as the release of private lands from the military and the release of political prisoners (LTTE suspects) are not attended to. The TNA MP however said that the party will not be part of the move to destabilize the national unity government and turning the direction of the government back again to a destructive path.
While the overall debate on the NCM was indicative of the ethnic divide in the country, the feat by the Prime Minister of defeating the NCM will not be a permanent victory, unless the Prime Minister and the President iron out their ideological differences especially in matters connected with economic development and attend to the long drawn issues of post war Sri Lanka. Last Wednesday President Maithripala Sirisena, issuing an Extraordinary Gazette notification relieved Wickremesinghe of key institutions he was responsible for by removing the Central Bank from the purview of the Ministry of National Policies and Economic Affairs, returning it to the Ministry of Finance. Also, the Security and Exchange Commission of Sri Lanka was transferred to the Ministry of Finance.
For the moment Wickremesinghe can revel in his victory as he undertakes the sweeping reforms he has promised in the UNP leadership to be carried out by the 8th of April – the pledge with which he got the UNP to come to a unanimous decision to stand by him.
Throughout his ordeal in the past few days, Wickremesinghe was adamant in his refusal to quit on grounds that he had the support of the majority both in the UNP, and the alliance United National Front (UNF) to which the UNP belonged. He was confident that the UNP-led UNF was the single largest group in parliament.
As per the expectation of Wickremesinghe, all the 106 members of the UNP-led UNF voted for him along with the Tamil National Alliance enabling him to get 122 votes. The Prime Minister speaking to the media soon after his victory said that the coalition government was still intact and that priority should be given to fulfilling the 2015 January 8 mandate. “I will be meeting the President on Friday to discuss the future of the government. The national unity government will continue,” he said.