By Dharisha Bastians
President Maithripala Sirisena’s Sri Lanka Freedom Party announced it would remain in the ruling national unity coalition yesterday, ending a week of political uncertainty and abruptly ending its campaign to oust Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe, although some members warned the ‘ceasefire’ was temporary.
After lengthy discussions with President Sirisena at the Presidential Secretariat last afternoon, the SLFP decided to remain in Government and agitate for major changes in the UNP-led Cabinet of Ministers. The SLFP was persuaded by the President to continue to the status quo, after Speaker Karu Jayasuriya brokered a peace deal between Sirisena and his Prime Minister at Paget Road on Sunday night (18 February), highly placed sources told Daily FT.
Despite soliciting the support of the Joint Opposition led by President Sirisena’s political arch enemy Mahinda Rajapaksa, the SLFP had been unable to muster the numbers to dismiss Premier Wickremesinghe constitutionally through a no-faith motion in Parliament, Daily FT learns.
But several SLFP members fired warning shots soon after the decision was announced, indicating that efforts to oust Wickremesinghe would continue.
“The UPFA/SLFP will remain together – there will be no defections. We demanded certain big changes in the Government, but these were not agreed to. We remain firm in our position that these changes must take place and we will explore legal ways of doing so,” SLFP Minister S. B. Dissanayake told reporters outside the Presidential Secretariat following the crucial meeting.
Dissanayake added that the UPFA had a majority in Parliament to topple the Government, but insisted that was a “second priority” with their main aim to strengthen President Sirisena’s position within the shaky coalition.
Deputy Minister and Deputy Speaker of Parliament Thilanga Sumathipala, also a UPFA member, who was allegedly involved in mustering enough MPs to form a single party Government led by the SLFP, told Parliament that the party would remain in the coalition until there was clarity on a legal question referred to the Supreme Court by the President, on how the national Government could continue if one major party pulled out of the ruling alliance. Sumathipala first floated the idea that the President had sought the opinion of the Supreme Court on the issue when he simultaneously announced the SLFP was quitting the Unity Government at 11PM on Sunday (18 February), sending shockwaves across the country. “The referral could take a few days, and the SLFP will remain in Government until then in order to ensure stability,” he noted.
However, in Parliament yesterday, Speaker Jayasuriya informed the House in response to a question raised by JO member Dinesh Gunawardena that he had got no official intimation that the UPFA was quitting the Government. Gunawardena quoted Sumathipala and said that if what the Deputy Minister said was true, the Cabinet of Ministers stood defunct.
However, Daily FT learns that Sumathipala had no authorisation from his party leadership to announce the UPFA/SLFP exit from the ruling coalition, since no decision had been reached on the matter till the meeting at the Presidential Secretariat last afternoon.
The crisis in the ruling coalition was precipitated by the stinging defeat of the two major parties at the hands of the fledgling, Rajapaksa-backed Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP) at the 10 February Local Government elections. SLPP, or the “Pohottuwa”, won 241 out of 341 councils up for grabs in that contest. The SLFP, led by President Sirisena obtained only 13 percent of the vote, while the UNP also suffered a humiliating defeat, by winning only 32% of the vote share and 41 councils island-wide. Following the election results, the SLFP demanded the sacking of Premier Wickremesinghe, who is blamed for the Government’s poor showing at the polls, but hurdle after hurdle has temporarily suspended the campaign.
The UNP, which rallied behind its Prime Minister as the SLFP stepped up calls for his removal, agreed to a major cabinet reshuffle this week as a compromise measure. The Foreign Affairs, Highways, Justice, Law and Order portfolios and several others have been identified for the shuffle.