Sri Lanka President Maithripala Sirisena’s party on Monday aborted its move to topple Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe, but vowed to press for a major reform of the unity government’s cabinet.
Sirisena’s spokesman and minister S. B. Dissanayake said the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) and its United People’s Freedom Alliance (UPFA) decided to remain in the government and end the uncertainty over the future of their coalition.
The humiliating defeat for Wickremesinghe’s United National Party (UNP) at the February 10 local elections triggered calls for his resignation although Sirisena’s SLFP/UPFA suffered an even bigger defeat making him a lame duck president.
Orchestrating calls for a change in the UNP leadership, Sirisena even attempted to secure the support of his nemesis Mahinda Rajapaksa to cobble together a shaky coalition but failed to secure the necessary parliamentary majority.
On Sunday night, Sirisena met with Wickremesinghe and Speaker Karu Jayasuriya who brokered peace between the two top men, but within minutes of clinching a settlement the president was once again plotting to topple the premier.
The private Sirasa television network which is strongly backing Sirisena’s moves to oust Wickremesinghe, reported on Sunday that Sports Minister Dayasiri Jayasekara informed Sirisena on Sunday night that they had 113 votes in parliament to form a government of their own.
Sirasa also reported that the SLFP/UPFA was quitting the coalition government to form their own administration. However, when parliament began its sessions on Monday, the putsch had fizzled out.
Instead of the 113 signatures of MPs supporting them, the SLFP/UPFA tabled a request for an adjornment debate with the signatures of just 20 MPs.
“We have decided after extensive discussions with the President to remain in the government,” Minister Dissanayake told reporters outside the President’s Secretariat. “We will agitate for reforms in the cabinet. We are firm on that.”
The president’s chameleon attitude was criticised by UNP stalwarts who were angry that Sirisena had attempted to undermine an agreement reached on Sunday night by opening fresh talks at midnight with Dayasiri Jayasekara.
Official sources close to both sides said Speaker Jayasuriya had displayed his political acumen in getting Sirisena and Wickremesinghe to thrash out their concerns and save the coalition they had built to keep the Rajapaksa regime taking power again.
Jayasuriya, who was being promoted by UNP dissidents as a successor to Wickremesinghe, assured the president and his own party that he was not interested in fuelling a power struggle and was only keen to ensure stability.
During the talks at the president’s official residence in Colombo, the three men also discussed the formation of a new cabinet by Wednesday, the sources said.
There had been speculation earlier Sunday that Sirisena was planning to prorogue parliament to give more time to the UPFA/SLFP to try and engineer defections from the UNP. However, by Monday, it was clear that the promised defections from the UNP were not materialising.
No party in the current parliament enjoys an absolute majority (113 seats) in the 225-member parliament. The SLFP needs 17 more seats even if it retains the full 56 seat support of the Rajapaksa-faction which has promised conditional backing to the Sirisena-faction if it can form a government without the UNP.
Former president Mahinda Rajapaksa’s Sri Lanka Podujana Party (SLPP) emerged the largest single party in 241 councils, but in over 150 councils they do not enjoy an absolute majority and will have to seek coalition partners.
With the actual number of councils under SLPP control significantly lower than the 241 initially thought to have won outright, the Rajapaksa faction will need allies to increase their hold on local bodies.
An alliance between the UNP and the Sirisena-faction of the SLFP will give them a majority of the councils to turn the tables on the SLPP.