Political confusion and parliament proroguing in Lanka

Political confusion and parliament proroguing in Lanka

Frances Bulathsinghala,
Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe (L) and President Maithripala Sirisena

First it was the marriage, then it was the falling out and now it is on the verge of divorce. The above is an apt description of the current state of the Sri Lankan coalition regime and the political marriage between Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe’s UNP and President Maithripala Sirisena’s SLFP, 3 years after they joined hands to run the country as a National Unity Government with the promise of Good Governance (Yahapalanaya). From the birth of this government in January 2015 to now, the concepts of ‘good’ and ‘unity’ and ‘governance’ has taken a severe beating.

A damning scam involving the Central Bank by the then Governor Arjuna Mahendran appointed by Premier Ranil Wickremesinghe, the SLFP headed by Sirisena having a tug-a-war with former, party chief and past President Mahinda Rajapaksa, and the overall resentment towards Premier Wickremesinghe reached high point; despite the PM last week winning a No Confidence Motion bought against him in parliament.

Despite the NCM vote in parliament seemingly putting the Joint Opposition of former President Mahinda Rajapaksa and the dissident SLFP MPs in the backseat of defeat, the NCM has bought about a political impasse with President Sirisena proroguing parliament till May 08 after 16 SLFP MPs quit the government.

The prorogation decision on Thursday midnight came as a surprise, as just hours earlier the President had sworn-in four cabinet ministers to partially fill vacancies created by the defection of 16  SLFP ministers, to the opposition.

The  gazette notification issued by the President on Thursday said: “By virtue of the powers vested in me by Article 70 of the Constitution of the Democratic Socialist Republic of Sri Lanka, I, Maithripala Sirisena, President, do by this Proclamation, prorogue Parliament with effect from the midnight of the Twelfth day of April, Two Thousand Eighteen, and fix the Eighth day of May, Two Thousand Eighteen, as the date for commencement of the next session of Parliament.”

The 16 MPs of the ruling SLFP who defected to the opposition are critics of Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe’s right wing policies, his handling of the economy and blame him  for appointing Arjuna Mahendran as Governor of the Central Bank who subsequently became the kingpin of the multi-billion rupee bond scam.

The dissident MPs had voted last week  for the No Confidence Movement (NCM) against Wickremesinghe moved by the Joint Opposition (JO) led by former President Mahinda Rajapaksa.

The rebels,  who are supporters of former President Mahinda Rajapaksa, who was the earlier head of the SLFP, had been  campaigning for the removal of Wickremesinghe, especially after Rajapaksa won a landslide victory of the local government elections on February 10 this year.

Meanwhile,  going back on their earlier pledge to President Sirisena, the 16 rebel Members of Parliament of the SLFP have announced that they are contemplating forming an alliance with the Joint Opposition and Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP) leader and former President, Mahinda Rajapaksa.

If parliament is dissolved and mid-term elections are called, the rebels would formally join former President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s SLPP and contest elections from that party, dissident SLFPers said.

Former cabinet minister and rebel leader S.B.Dissanayake told journalists Friday that when parliament reassembles on May 8, the 16 SLFP rebels will move to the opposition benches and “seek a mandate through a full peoples’ alliance with the Joint Opposition.”

It is in this scenario that President Sirisena on Friday appointed a committee under Dr.Sarath Amunugama to advice him on re-structuring his relations with the UNP. He is hoping that a re-worked structure will bring the dissidents back.

Meanwhile, a panicky President Sirisena, has been blowing hot and cold in the past months on how he views his Prime Minister, though it has been mostly in the negative. Five days before Wickremesinghe was to face the No Confidence Motion, President Maithripala Sirisena removed the Central Bank from the purview of Wickremesinghe along with  the Security and Exchange Commission of Sri Lanka was transferred to the Ministry of Finance and just a day before the NCM was to be taken up for voting stepped up pressure on Wickremesinghe to resign.

However, since Wickremesinghe won the No Confidence Motion (NCM), Sirisena has tried  to salvage both his SLFP and the coalition government. The best that he has been able to do however is to appeal to the dissident SLFPers not to desert his party completely. But has no guarantee on how the rebel members will behave from now onwards.

However, from the UNP side Sirisena hopes that memory will be short and that his attempts to undermine the UNP within the coalition regime would be forgotten as he attempts to restructure his relations with that party.

His key aim is to facilitate the return of the prodigal SLFPers back to the coalition fold, with the expectation of a certain amount of ‘give and take’. He expects the distribution of power to be politically acceptable to the SLFP and not only to the UNP.

The UNP is accused of being too right wing and pro Western for the SLFP, a centre left party. It is Sirisena’s hope that this ideological gap will be narrowed. Hence, after buying time by announcing the proroguing of parliament till May 08, President Sirisena on Friday, appointed a party committee of senior SLFPers under Cabinet Minister Dr.Sarath Amunugama to discuss with all stakeholders relevant inter-party issues including the currently troublesome demand in the SLFP to quit the alliance with the UNP and align with the Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP) led by former President Mahinda Rajapaksa.

Amunugama, who himself is close to Rajapaksa, has however, managed to be in the good books of Sirisena as well as Wickremesinghe.

Amunugama belongs to the group of 25 SLFPers who abstained from voting for the No Confidence Motion against Wickremesinghe, and he is currently seen as a peacemaker who could bring the UNP and the SLFP together to continue governance till 2020 when the next Presidential and Parliamentary elections are due.

Sources within the SLFP say that it is the hope of  President Sirisena at least 11 out of the 16 SLFP defectors may return to the government fold ‘after thinking things through.’

Meanwhile, Sirisena, also has to fear from the ambitions of the UNP which is also trying to form a government of its own.

The UNP feels that it can get a simple majority and surpass the required 113 members, which is the minimum requirement to form a government in the House of 225 members including the Speaker.

Sources within the UNP are confident that they will be able to attract about 10 SLFPers to join them, in case they are to attempt sole rule till the next elections are due in 2020.

The UNP however, is not completely  averse to ruling alongside the SLFP and keeping the coalition alive but it is the developments in the political amphitheatre in the next few weeks that will determine if this will be possible.