Dharisha Bastians and Chathuri Dissanayake
Efforts to break a deadlock on the political future of Sri Lanka’s ruling coalition continued yesterday, with a second round of late night talks for all UNP Cabinet ministers at President Maithripala Sirisena’s official residence at Paget Road last night.
The meeting ended inconclusively, but ministers present said the national unity coalition would make a final decision on if it would stay together or part ways after the weekly Cabinet meeting today, at which SLFP ministers will also be present. UNP Deputy Leader and Minister of Housing Sajith Premadasa told the media that the two leaders had decided to appoint a committee to determine the future of the coalition. The meeting had been cordial, although the President had initially walked in angry, it is learnt.
However, Ranjan Ramanayake, who was the only deputy minister invited to last night’s talks, tried to lighten the mood at the tense meeting, and also managed to tell both leaders some home truths. Ramanayake told the Daily FT he had reminded the President and the Prime Minister that they had the support of 6.2 million Sri Lankans and urged the two leaders to correct the mistakes the Government had made and move forward.
UNP ministers communicated to the President that the removal of the Prime Minister was a decision to be made by the party and it was agreed that he could not be asked to step down.
President Sirisena replied that while that was understandable, he had to think about his own party too, as the leader of the SLFP, Daily FT learns.
Meeting earlier at Temple Trees for discussions, UNP Cabinet members and UNFGG constituents agreed that Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe should continue in office, the Daily FT learns. The UNP would continue to govern in the coalition and SLFP ministers were welcome to leave if they wished, the UNP and its allies decided.
The future of the National Unity Government, which has been ruling since September 2015, has never looked bleaker after both the UNP and SLFP suffered a humiliating defeat at Saturday’s electoral contest for control of local councils at the hands of the fledgling Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna, a party backed by former president Mahinda Rajapaksa.
The fallout from the election has led to chaos and uncertainty inside the shaky ruling alliance, with President Sirisena’s SLFP demanding the removal of Prime Minister Wickremesinghe and the UNP flatly refusing to consider the proposal.
SLFP ministers – many of whom lost their electorates in Saturday’s contest after the party suffered its worse electoral showing in decades – are making Premier Wickremesinghe’s removal conditional to their continued support for the Unity Government.
“The UPFA will not support or participate in any government as long as Ranil Wickremesinghe is Prime Minister,” UPFA Spokesman and State Minister Dilan Perera told the media yesterday, indicating that the President’s party was ready to dig in its heels.
The Daily FT learns that non-political envoys have already been dispatched to UNP Deputy Leader Sajith Premadasa and Speaker of Parliament Karu Jayasuriya, requesting them to consider stepping in as Prime Minister. Both senior UNP members have declined to accept the premiership without explicit party approval for the move, sources told the Daily FT.
The UNP disagrees with the SLFP position that the Premier should step down and is insisting that as the party that won the most number of seats in the August 2015 parliamentary election, it will call on support from other parties in the legislature to show a majority and govern alone for the two and a half years remaining in its term. Without the support of President Sirisena’s SLFP, the UNP can muster at least 106 MPs in the House, seven short of a simple majority required to pass legislation and national budgets.
Earlier yesterday a group of UNP backbenchers met Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe and urged him to form a UNP government independent of support from the SLFP. Several senior UNP members have expressed the view that a divorce has been imminent since the alliance with the party’s political archrival had always been uneasy with the centre-left SLFP repeatedly blocking UNP policy reforms and initiatives. An acrimonious polls campaign ahead of last weekend’s election had further jeopardised the relationship between the rivals turned ruling allies, the members said.
If the UNP decides to go solo, SLFP members will be faced with a choice of joining the opposition or attempting to muster the numbers to pass a no-faith motion against the UNP and form a government of its own. With 40-odd members allied with the President, the SLFP would be forced to unite with Rajapaksa’s JO in order to muster the numbers to govern.
As the UNP announced intentions to form its own Government with party leader Wickremesinghe remaining as Prime Minister therefore, United People’s Freedom Alliance sought the support of different parties in an attempt to form their own alliance to govern.
A meeting convened for the UPFA parliamentary group discussed the possibility of a “caretaker government” with the support of the Joint Opposition (JO), senior SLFP sources told the Daily FT.
“The SLFP is also in negotiation with a few other parties. If you analyse the numbers, the UNP has only 82 seats in the Parliament and we are looking at other parties as well,” the senior SLFP Minister said.
JO MP Dinesh Gunawardena told the Daily FT that the possibility to form a caretaker government was being considered. However, the demand for a General Election still remains, he said.
However, SLFP General Secretary Minister Duminda Dissanayake denied reports that the UPFA had demanded Wickremesinghe be replaced as Prime Minister.
Dissanayake also claimed that his party would do whatever it took to take the mandate given to their leader in 2015 forward.
“We will not chase after power alone, we will do the right thing to ensure that we deliver on the mandate given by the people to President Maithripala Sirisena in 2015,” he said.
“It is true that this Government has to correct its course. The people have given us a clear indication of that. We need to focus on the issues that we have in the Government and see how best to move forward from there,” Dissanayake said.
The SLFP is also setting things in motion to form alliances with different groups at local government polls. Dissanayake also stressed that the SLFP has a controlling percentage in a large number of local authorities when the numbers won by alliance parties and independent groups who ran for elections as a coalition in respective areas are added up.
With the political rumour mill in overdrive, the main Opposition Tamil National Alliance denied claims that it would support a solitary UNP Government.
“We will not join the Government until a solution to the national question is imminent,” TNA Spokesman M.A. Sumanthiran announced through the party’s official Twitter account.
Diplomatic overtures appear to have been made to defuse deepening tensions within the ruling alliance, the Daily FT learns. Authoritative sources told the Daily FT that US Ambassador Atul Keshap had met President Sirisena and Prime Minister Wickremesinghe yesterday amid the prevailing uncertainty. Indian High Commissioner Taranjit Singh also met both leaders yesterday, although sources said it was a “routine” meeting.
Meanwhile, civil society movements that backed the Sirisena candidacy in 2015 held discussions with both the President and Prime Minister, emphasising the need to hold the alliance together in order to deliver on fundamental promises made to the people ahead of that revolutionary election.
Purawesi Balaya co-convenor Saman Ratnapriya argued that bickering within the Government, repeatedly spilling out into the public domain, had undermined its reform agenda and resulted in its failure to deliver. Going forward, the National Unity Government needed to focus on big promises it made before the 8 January election, including constitutional reform and the abolition of the executive presidency. Criticism should be contained within the Government and the President and Prime Minister needed to present a unified front, Ratnapriya said.