(Excerpted From the “Sunday Times”Political Column)
Pro-Sirisena SLFP members continued their on-off dialogue with a group of Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP) members on forming a new Government under President Sirisena. At issue were a number conditions from the SLPP. Most of these centred on economic policy where the SLPP sought a shift from the UNP Government’s liberalisation programmes. One such issue was what the SLPP called the sale of public assets.
As the dialogue went on, President Sirisena himself had been keen this week to seek the help of Basil Rajapaksa, the principal strategist for SLPP to hurriedly expedite matters.Telephone calls from both Sirisena and his brother Dudley to Basil Rajapaksa went unanswered.
Rajapaksa told a leading Buddhist prelate that he was all in favour of forming a Government. However, he said, he had not wanted to answer the phone calls since the Government formation would have to be handled by the ‘Joint Opposition’ and the SLFP. “The SLPP technically has no representation in Parliament. This was by no means a discourtesy (towards the President and other SLFPers),” he told the prelate. Rajapaksa is also now being wooed by Colombo’s diplomatic community. This week, he had a two hour long meeting with the new Chinese Ambassador Cheng Xueyuan.
Sirisena’s volte face has painted himself to a corner. Earlier efforts, both formally and informally, to re-unite with the rival factions in the SLFP have not borne fruit. To make it worse, his Minister Susil Premjayantha, who was the front runner to form an SLFP Government found there were not enough numbers of MPs for the overthrow of the UNP-dominated Government. He claimed he was able to muster only 102 names though his colleagues flatly disputed the figure.
While some UNP MPs are possible cross-over candidates, the UNP seemed certain it will not be one-way traffic. And now, contrary to his previous boastful stance, Premjayantha continues eating humble pie as Minister of Science, Technology and Research. Pay and perks are too good for any minister to just dump his or her position though contradictory public statements have become a hallmark of such politicians. The diplomatic caution that was delivered and the other added developments seem to have taken a toll. So Sirisena, with no choice, not only relented but seems to have taken a step backwards. He now waits until his arch enemies before February 10 decide whether or not to help him. Help would mean another move to oust Premier Wickremesinghe whilst no help would amount to further isolation and working with the UNP.
It is significant that Sirisena had a one-on-one meeting with Rajapaksa where the current political situation formed the subject of discussion. Rajapaksa told the Sunday Times “we met two weeks ago at a non public place.” He, however declined to divulge details.Secrecy shrouds Sirisena move.
In the past three weeks, the political goings-on have been shrouded in mystery. Sirisena, who pledged transparency during his election campaign, neither summoned his customary news conference nor address the nation. He continued the practice of a blanket secrecy by asking his staff not to allow the media to cover live the swearing-in either. The media coverage of the 35-minute ceremony together with a ten-minute speech by Sirisena, was limited to official television footage and still photographs that were only released after the event. Periodic news releases containing the names of one or two ministers then sworn-in were the sop for media coverage of such a public event. Being a Sunday, a larger number of Sri Lankans who wanted to see it live on television were disappointed.
The news blackout is understandable from the President’s stand-point though not commendable. He had, after all, asked Premier Wickremesinghe to step down from his post, but instead swore him in as Law and Order Minister, while remaining Prime Minister. He was compelled to acknowledge his Premier deserved another subject, though temporary. That was in marked contrast to blaming him for the loss at local polls. To say the least, it was an embarrassing moment for him.
This was after removing Sagala Ratnayake, a close confidant of Wickremesinghe and Chief of Staff at Temple Trees. Ratnayake who was in charge of the Police (as Minister of Law and Order) was accused of leaking information to the Rajapaksas about the investigations against them, an accusation he vehemently denied.
The switch came in for severe criticism in political circles since, in the past, the actions of the duo closely complemented each other. They feared it would continue even now, as Chief of Staff, Ratnayake works closely with the Premier. The former Law and Order Minister was, however, assigned the Ministry of Youth Affairs and Southern Development.
Piyasena Gamage, who had brushes with the Police when he was Deputy Minister of Law and Order was made Ratnayake’s deputy. His appointment raised eyebrows in view of his age, 69 years, on the grounds that a younger person should have been named for youth affairs.