A faction within President Maithripala Sirisena’s Sri Lanka Freedom Party announced it will abstain from the no-confidence motion against Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe as the opposition failed to muster the numbers required to topple him.
After failing in their attempts to pressure Wickremesinghe to step down, the Sirisena-faction was in two pieces – one supporting the no-confidence resolution and the other opposing it.
SLFP state minister A. H. M. Fowzie who is in the “no-camp” opposing any moves to topple the government, told reporters that “they”, meaning the rebels within Sirisena faction, will abstain from voting allowing the premier to win by a big margin.
Shortly after Fowzie dropped the bombshell announcement, two SLFP Sirisena faction stalwarts, Chandima Weerakkody and Lakshman Yapa Abeywardena said they will vote against Wickremesinghe.
However, from the start, it was clear that the opposition did not have the required majority to oust Wickremesinghe, but Sirisena attempted pressure tactics, hoping he could engineer defections from the United National Party (UNP).
Sirisena-faction insiders say the strategy had only backfired with Sirisena splitting his own SLFP faction between those who want to remain in a coalition with the UNP and those supporting an alliance with the Mahinda Rajapaksa faction of their party. That split will get only widened after today’s vote.
Rajapaksa himself had been lukewarm about the whole no-confidence move, privately telling his confidantes that the move to get rid of the UNP leader was ill advised. He had blamed Wimal Weerawansa and Udaya Gammanpila who till Tuesday morning were boasting they could topple Wickremesinghe with at least a two-seat majority.
Despite surviving the vote, Wickremesinghe could also face a tough challenge within his party to carry out long-delayed leadership reforms. Chief among the complaints against him is the control his old-school network, known as the FRCS kabal, has over key positions in the administration.
The FRCS (Former Royal College Student) group includes senior minister Malik Samarawickrema and former civil servant Charitha Ratwatte. Cabinet seniors such as Rajitha Senaratne openly accused Ratwatte of working against the interests of the UNP-led government.
Both Ratwatte and Samarawickrema were key figures in a national economic committee which vetted project proposals from ministries. Fed up with the obstructionist committee, Sirisena had wanted it abolished although Wickremesinghe insisted on keeping the committee.
As the parliamentary debate got underway, a jubilant UNP state minister Harsha de Silva tweeted a photo from the parliament chamber saying “JO big guns glum faced”
The no-confidence motion was initiated by the Joint Opposition (JO) which is led by former president Mahinda Rajapaksa, but it had full backing of the Sirisena-faction too which had previously announced it supported the resolution.
With Wickremesinghe set to survive today’s vote, three SLFP state ministers who signed the no-confidence motion are expected to be asked to step down. The UNP is also mounting pressure on several senior SLFP ministers, including Susil Premajayantha, Nimal Siripala and Dayasiri Jayasekara to resign. Weerakkody and Lakshman Yapa are also expected to be asked to step down from the government.
Minority Tamil and Muslim parties in the UNP coalition have announced they will support the Prime Minister while the Tamil National Alliance which has a decisive 16 seats in the assembly has said it will not be party to toppling the prime minister.