By Dharisha Bastians
Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe radiated a ‘business as usual’ attitude yesterday as he announced that he would continue in office, and brushed off a week of political uncertainty and chaos as the difficulties of ‘coalition politics’ in his first public comments since his party was defeated in Local Government elections last Saturday.
“As far as I am concerned, I am carrying on as Prime Minister according to the constitution,” Wickremesinghe asserted during his widely anticipated statement last evening.
Even as the rumour mill went into overdrive again yesterday, Wickremesinghe assured reporters that the Government continues to function. “The daily work of Government continues as usual,” he said.
Looking supremely confident and relaxed at the press interaction and talking to journalists for over an hour, the Prime Minister insisted that his United National Front for Good Governance (UNFGG) Government’s position was that the Unity Government could go on. To dismiss the Government, the constitution was clear on a no-confidence motion, he explained.
Questioned about if he was confident of showing the numbers in Parliament if the crisis boiled down to that, Wickremesinghe replied: “We have the majority.”
Coalition politics was different and complex, the Premier explained while chatting to journalists after the briefing. “This is our first time ruling in coalition too,” he said. Ruling as a single party was always easier since policies were one and the same, Wickremesinghe added.
In an uncharacteristic public acknowledgement, Wickremesinghe also admitted last weekend’s election results had been a “major setback” for political parties in the ruling alliance.
“As Head of Government and Prime Minister, I have to take responsibility for the defeat,” Wickremesinghe said.
All over the world, midterm elections were a good barometer to test a Government’s performance and public opinion, the Premier noted, adding that there was still time for the Government to correct itself.
The unfavourable economic situation, unexpected natural disasters that impacted food production and pricing and the failure to deliver on all the 8 January 2015 promises had cost the ruling parties the election, the Prime Minister analysed.
“We accept the people’s verdict. It was a warning sign from the voters. We will look inwards. We will learn from our mistakes and correct course,” he pledged.
Course correction would include restructuring of policy and reforming the Cabinet of Ministers, the Premier noted. Serious talks on the Cabinet reshuffle would take place with the President next week, he explained. “We remain committed to carry forward the 8 January mandate,” Wickremesinghe insisted.
Asked about SLFP calls for his resignation, Prime Minister Wickremesinghe admitted that the party’s position had been communicated to him by President Maithripala Sirisena. His own relationship with the President following an acrimonious election campaign and a crisis in Government remained as usual, Wickremesinghe told Daily FT. “We met yesterday, we met the day before. We carry on,” he said.
The Prime Minister also vehemently denied allegations that he had prevented members of the former ruling family from being prosecuted.
“I didn’t protect anybody. I know Mahinda Rajapaksa well. I discuss various matters that crop up from time to time, but I have no other connection with him,” he insisted.
As for leadership struggles within his own party, “nobody has asked for my resignation,” he quipped lightheartedly. “Let the new leadership come and take over the party,” he added.
The UNP, which was reduced to 32% of votes at the recently concluded local elections, will undertake a major restructure to pave the way for a new generation of leaders to emerge, the Prime Minister said. Discussions about this restructure were already taking place among party members, he added.
Wickremesinghe did not directly commit to stepping down as party leader, but insisted that the time was right for a transition of power.
“We entered politics 40 years ago. Sri Lankan political parties are centered around individuals. A transition has to take place,” Wickremesinghe, who has been at the helm of the UNP since 1994, told journalists.
It was the first time one of the two leaders at the center of the political turmoil gripping the country since last weekend had addressed the crisis and attempted to provide clarity about the fate of the coalition Government.
President Sirisena who was due to address the heads of media institutions last morning, suddenly cancelled the meeting at midnight Thursday. Inviting journalists to have refreshments following the briefing, Prime Minister Wickremesinghe quipped, “You missed breakfast, so at least have tea.”