By Dharisha Bastians
Jubilant after his party swept local government polls on 10 February, former President Mahinda Rajapaksa stepped up pressure on the Government to call parliamentary elections, even as the shocking election upset plunged the ruling coalition deep into crisis over the weekend.
Questions abound about the future of the National Unity Government led by President Maithripala Sirisena and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe, with the UNP and SLFP trading barbs after a humiliating defeat at the hands of the fledgling Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP) backed by the former President on 10 February.
Wearing ‘pohottuwa’ colours and broad smiles, Mahinda Rajapaksa told reporters at the Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna headquarters in Battaramulla that only fresh parliamentary elections would break the deadlock and end the current political instability.
“This was much more than just a local government election. This election had national stakes. This was a people’s mandate against division of the country, the sale of national assets, political witch-hunts and the hunting of war-heroes,” Rajapaksa said.
Under the terms of the 19th Amendment, early dissolution of parliament requires a resolution supported by two thirds of the legislature. Asked if the Joint Opposition would bring this resolution before the House, Rajapaksa replied: “Why should we bring it? Let the Government bring it and we will support it.”
In a show of supreme confidence, the former President said he would not engage in conspiracies and backroom deals to form a Government in the current Parliament. “There is no point engaging in deal-making to form a government, after a meal of string-hoppers or something,” he quipped in a broadside at the infamous Maithripala Sirisena crossover following a dinner of hoppers with Rajapaksa ahead of the 2015 presidential election. “Democratically, let us ask the people for a decision. We are in no rush – but the people are in a hurry,” the former President asserted.
Rajapaksa also dismissed speculation that he was expecting several SLFP ministers to cross over and sit in opposition with the JO. “We don’t need them to cross over – the people have already crossed over,” he said, making it clear that any alliance with the SLFP which was decimated in Saturday’s election would be exclusively on the SLPP’s terms.
His son and Hambantota District MP Namal Rajapaksa also denied rumours that the SLPP would form an alliance with President Sirisena’s SLFP to wrest control of the Hambantota Municipal Council from the UNP. The UNP won the Hambantota MC in Saturday’s election, securing a majority at the Council with nine members and 41% of the vote.
However the former President made it clear that the Joint Opposition would use Saturday’s LG polls victory to tighten the screws against the Government at a national level, Rajapaksa also demanded that the Speaker of the House bow to the people’s verdict and recognise the JO as the legitimate opposition in the country.
The SLPP press conference in Battaramulla, where security personnel wearing shirts monogrammed “EX PSD” body searched reporters ahead the former President’s arrival had a celebratory feel, with journalists served milk rice and traditional sweetmeats to mark the party’s big win over the weekend.
Former Defence Secretary Gotabhaya Rajapaksa, who was overseas during the final weeks of the polls campaign, returned to the island yesterday, insisting that he would not be the 2019 presidential candidate because he was holding US citizenship. It was the former top official’s first public admission that he was an American citizen, but analysts said US citizenship would not be difficult to part with to gain the prize that is the Sri Lankan executive presidency.
Meanwhile, the UNP and SLFP – partners in the ruling alliance – struggled to navigate the political future of the coalition. SLFP Ministers – many of whom lost their electorates in the weekend contest – are making the removal of Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe conditional to remaining in the coalition, according to sources with knowledge of discussions between President Sirisena and his party-men. In response, the UNP ministers are pushing for the party to govern alone, with the support of minority coalition partners and conditional support from the TNA, Daily FT learns. After the drubbing the SLFP led by President Sirisena received in 10 February’s local government election, fears of a SLFP exodus from Government that would swell the ranks of the pro-Rajapaksa Joint Opposition in Parliament are also rife.