(Excerpts from “Sunday Times” Political Column)
Obathumaatath mekeng sweep ekak vedenna puluwang or you also can win a sweep ticket through this, remarked ‘Joint Opposition’ parliamentarian Wimal Weerawansa as Dinesh Gunawardena handed a copy of the No-Confidence Motion against Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe, to Speaker Karu Jayasuriya.
Jayasuriya was not too pleased with the remark that hinted that he could become Prime Minister ousting Wickremesinghe. Mama oya sweep ticket walata kadera nehe or I am not greedy for those sweep tickets, he extorted.
Gunawardena, leader in Parliament of the ‘Joint Opposition’, handed over the motion signed by 55 MPs, four of them from the SLFP, on Wednesday afternoon. Present to grace the occasion was the de facto leader of the ‘JO,’ former President Mahinda Rajapaksa, and a group of parliamentarians who are his supporters.
“We are confident of having the motion passed in Parliament,” Gunawardena told the Sunday Times. He said the motion, the contents of which were revealed in these columns last week, has received wider support.
“Though I did not sign for it expressly at the request of the party, I propose to vote for the motion. In the past, I have not done so in respect of any other similar motion in Parliament,“ Mahinda Rajapaksa told the Sunday Times. Yet, there are growing indications, despite optimism amongst select SLFP Ministers, the motion is doomed to fail. How enthusiastic Rajapaksa himself was on this motion being filed is also a matter of speculation. Finger pointing on responsibility for such an imminent debacle has begun.
In fact, the quick handover of the motion to Speaker Jayasuriya last Wednesday, did raise eyebrows. It has now emerged that a formidable ‘JO’ section was trying to stall it. Barely 24 hours after it was handed over, Speaker Jayasuriya chaired a meeting of party leaders to discuss a date for a debate. It was House Leader and Minister Lakshman Kiriella who offered that they debate it to a finish on April 4. Dinesh Gunawardena was to insist that Standing Orders of Parliament should be followed. A somewhat angry Kiriella retorted, “You asked for an early debate. We have given you one. Why are you now complaining?” Gunawardena explained that in terms of provisions of the Standing Orders, the motion should be on the Order Book of Parliament for five days. It was agreed that there would be a 12-hour debate – from 9.30 a.m. to 9.30 p.m. on April 4.
The very next day, last Thursday, the question of numbers for the passage of the motion in Parliament formed the subject of discussion when a group of ‘JO’ and SLFP parliamentarians met in the lobby of Parliament. They included Dinesh Gunawardena, Wimal Weerawansa, Mahindananda Aluthgamage, Susil Premjayantha and Thilanga Sumathipala. Minister Premjayantha remarked that “whether or not the ‘JO’ succeeds in the no-confidence motion, it will yet be the winner. Its passage will be a credit to the ‘JO’. A defeat will pave the way for even some SLFP parliamentarians to join the Opposition ranks.” Whatever the onetime, United People’s Freedom Alliance (UPFA) General Secretary, who then boasted that he would sit in Opposition benches if he could not forge unity between the feuding factions of the SLFP, is now sceptical is indeed interesting. This is whilst SLFP Minister S.B. Dissanayake, a prime mover for the SLFP, told his colleagues he was “quite confident” the no-confidence motion would be passed with the required numbers.
The United National Party (UNP) that has remained somewhat defensive over the no-confidence motion has also gone into high gear. At a previous UNP parliamentary group meeting, Minister Mangala Samaraweera insisted that Ranil Wickremesinghe should not only remain Prime Minister but also should continue to serve as the leader of the UNP. The fact that it was Wickremesinghe who helped him become a member of the UNP when he was in the unregistered SLFP (M) faction (where he and late Sripathi Sooriyaratchchi were MPs) was not lost on him. Backing Samaraweera’s move strongly was Minister Rajitha Senaratne.
Even at the weekly ministerial meeting on Tuesday, Minister Ranawaka raised issue over the no-confidence motion. He said it was the Prime Minister now and would soon be the Speaker later. Thereafter, he said, there would be an impeachment motion against the President. He said the matter should not be taken lightly and asked “are we going to allow this to happen?” He argued that 6.2 million voters had given a mandate to this Government. Endorsing Ranawaka’s remarks, his ministerial colleague Rajitha Senaratne, declared “we need to work together.”
“Otherwise, we will be forced to take our own decision,” he said in what seemed a veiled threat directed at the President. Sirisena remained unmoved. The occasion for the discussion was a Cabinet Memorandum Ranawaka has submitted for political reforms. A highlight is a recommendation for both the SLFP and the UNP to form a Leadership Council comprising younger ministers and allow them to run the country’s economy. It is to come up for discussion next Tuesday.
Last Thursday, when the UNP parliamentary group met, strongly advocating that a vote of confidence be moved on Premier Wickremesinghe was Minister Lakshman Kiriella. It was unanimously adopted. The move has so far drawn more than 80 signatures, a party official said. He said it would increase when partners in the United National Front (UNF) place their signatures. Minister Patali Champika Ranawaka, a leader of the Jathika Hela Urumaya (JHU), a partner in the UNP Government, called for immediate structural changes in the Front. Most MPs remained silent but Minister Gamini Jayawickrema Perera backed his proposal. Ranawaka walked away from the meeting without signing the Confidence Vote. He noted that what really mattered was not a no-confidence vote or a confidence vote. Urgent measures were needed to win back the support of the people since the outcome of the February 10 local polls was historic and should not be ignored. See Q & A on next page. That Wickremesinghe had garnered the support of his own party members by committing them to sign is to his credit. However, if one is to go by past political history, the untoward happens too. A flat tyre, hospitalisation or similar situation during voting time could still keep a handful away.
Other than obtaining signatures of those in the United National Front (UNF), the confidence vote will neither be handed over to the Speaker not debated. A party official said it would remain as a proof that UNF MPs were in support of Wickremesinghe continuing as Prime Minister.
Another UNP effort last Tuesday night was to apprise President Sirisena on its side of the story and discuss steps to be taken for the Government to move forward. UNP Chairman and Minister Malik Samarawickrema met President Sirisena. This was in the absence of UNP General Secretary, Kabir Hashim who left last Sunday for Umrah pilgrimage for Mecca in Saudi Arabia. The ritual is performed by Muslims and can be undertaken at any time of the year. This meeting laid to rest wild speculation that a UNP delegation sought a meeting with Sirisena. However, a prominent UNPer did have a one-on-one meeting with the President for 90 minutes, during which he argued Premier Wickremesinghe’s case. He is also said to have offered the party’s support to Sirisena for his candidature at the next presidential election. This, however, could not be confirmed and how he assumed authority of the party in this regard is not clear. Efforts to reach the senior member, who at one-time made a bid for the party leadership were futile. He did not answer phone calls or SMS messages. President Sirisena and Premier Wickremesinghe also had a one-on-one meeting on Thursday. Among the issues discussed were the no confidence motion and matters relating to the Cabinet Committee on Economic Management (CCEM)