A recent speech made by President Maithripala Sirisena has made many who backed his presidential bid in 2015 nervous. In his address at a public meeting near Kurunegala in the North Western Province, Mr. Sirisena, for the first time, launched a frontal attack on the United National Party (UNP), with which the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) he leads formed a coalition government in 2015.
“As the [previous] government of SLFP did wrong things, the SLFP candidate [Mahinda Rajapaka] lost in 2015. If the UNP is doing the same faults and mistakes, people will not approve that,” he said, suggesting that Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe’s UNP could be as corrupt as the Rajapaksa regime, which is accused of large-scale corruption.
It seemed like President Sirisena was hitting back at his partner, days after UNP backbenchers blamed him for the delay in Sri Lanka’s local council elections. Tension has been brewing for sometime, with some UNP members seeing the presidential commission’s inquiry into the Central Bank bond scam as a deliberate attempt to corner the PM, who appointed the former governor, now accused of nepotism and corruption.
For most part, the two leaders refrained from attacking each other’s party directly. But when President Sirisena chose to name the UNP, and likened it to the previous administration, it was a clear sign of the strain within the delicate coalition. In January 2015, the partnership had evoked much domestic and international cheer, after the UNP and the Sirisena-led faction of the SLFP came together and defeated Mr. Rajapaksa.
The coalition of arch-rivals, the centre-right UNP and a faction of the centre-left SLFP, rose to power, promising good governance and constitutional reform, among other things. The political differences between the parties had become immaterial. More significantly, the country’s Sinhala majority, Tamil and Muslim minority, all felt hopeful at once. Even the civil society, a large section of which backed the coalition, was optimistic.
That initial promise slowly began fading in the past three years, in the wake of the bond scam, the government’s seeming reluctance to act on corruption cases involving the previous regime, the rather slow movement on the Constitution, and the pending initiative on the assurances given to the UN Human Rights Council. Despite all these, which supporters of the government attribute to individual aberrations (in the case of the bond scam) or political compulsions, there was a semblance of hope, at least in Colombo circles.
However, after President Sirisena’s recent address, that is not the case. More so because of the apparent churning within the already fragile SLFP, which has pushed President Sirisena to agree to his party men’s demand for reconciling differences with the Rajapaksa-led faction, the ‘Joint Opposition’, ahead of the local elections expected early next year.
To most political observers, the possibility of Mr. Sirisena working with his former boss, whose government he quit on the eve of the 2015 election, seems impossible. At the same time, media reports highlight heightened patch-up efforts from designated teams on both sides.
A group of anxious civil society actors, who actively campaigned for good governance in the last election, met President Sirisena recently. He assured them that the current government will stay united no matter what, a source told The Hindu.
Whether such assurances will matter in the politics of survival will soon be evident.