“Our Party is like ‘amoeba’, we have had many opinions on this and we have accommodated them all.”
– SLFP Minister Vijith Vijithamuni Soysa, media interview after the NCM vote.
The much ballyhooed No Confidence Motion against the Prime Minister has come and gone. In the end, it was not even close. The 46 vote victory for the Prime Minister is a massive blow to the small minds behind this silly sideshow.104 of the 106 UNP/UNFMPs, including the former Minister of Justice, stood solid in voting against the No Confidence Motion (NCM). With the TNA venturing to take a stand and not sit on the fence, and joined by the SLMC and the EPDP (now TNA’s local government ally in the Peninsula, against third generation Ponnambalam side show in Jaffna), the no-vote swelled to the impressive 122 votes. On the yes side, 54 JO MPs were joined by the JVP (6) and 16 two-timing SLFP ministers and deputy ministers. The real story of the day was the 29 MPs who abstained or kept away from the vote. 23 of them are SLFP ministers, deputy/state ministers and MPs. One of them, Minister Sarath Amunugama, had already dismissed the NCM effort as a “silly side show.” Three other Ministers, Mahinda Samarasinghe, Ranjith Siyambalapitiya and Vijithamuni Soysa, gave a revealing media interview after the vote. It was there that Minister Soysa delivered the SLFP-deprecating quip that I have quoted above.
While embarrassed by the 16 SLFPers who voted for the NCM, the three ministers were quite critical of the Joint Opposition for launching the NCM diversion without formally consulting the SLFP or its Central Committee, and without any plan as to who will replace Ranil Wickremesinghe as Prime Minister. The latter was also the concern of the former Minister of Justice Wijeydasa Rajapakshe.The SLFP ministers contended that the NCM was not at all about the bond scam, or even about the Prime Minister, but all about splitting the SLFP. In their view, it is illogical to be part of a government and to vote for a no-confidence motion against the government. As for their 16 colleagues who voted ‘illogically’ for the NCM. However, Minister Soysa conceded that no disciplinary action was possible against the ‘dissenters’ because President Sirisena had made it a free vote for the SLFP group.
It was the President who decided to sit on the fence and allow a free vote for his MPs. Until then he had been jumping from one side to the other and found neither side overly receptive. He tried in vain to find an alternative to Ranil Wickremesinghe from within the UNP. On the other side, the President didn’t realize he and his SLFP mediators were being taken for a ride by the SLPP. In the end, he chose to sit on the fence and allow a free vote. A free vote is no less illogical and now the President has to deal with ‘his ministers’ who voted against ‘his government’. There is nothing new in all this, except that the post-vote statements by the three SLFP ministers confirm what many have been surmising about the rise and fall of the no confidence motion.
The rise and fall of no-confidence
When the JO neophytes and small minds within and outside of parliament produced their NCM baby, the more experienced MPs in the JO were incredulous. The idea of the NCM started among a few UNP MPs who wanted to get rid of Ranil Wickremesingheas leader of the UNP. The SLFP was supposed to join them and the JO/SLPP was expected to bring up the rear to get a majority vote for the NCM. The JO stalwarts were perplexed as to how they ended up carrying the no-confidence baby while no one from the UNP or the SLFP was anywhere to be seen it. Fingers have been pointed at Udaya Gammanpila and Wimal Weerawansa in the JO parliamentary group, and they were joined by the gang of Ranil-haters outside parliament and who are gung ho about getting Ranil not only out of the PM’s chair, but also out of politics altogether.
The small minds were ready to try any method and at any cost. Already, they had tried, with the President going along with them, from keyhole surgery to Supreme Court intervention to plain bullying to get rid Ranil. Nothing seemed to work, so the neophytes and the small minds appropriated the no-confidence idea. One of them even blamed the better advisers of President Sirisena for scuttling the more clinical methods for removing Ranil, and forcing on them (JO) and the country the messier no-confidence way out. The small minds can only blame themselves for thoroughly misreading the signals from the UNP and overestimating the loyalty to the Rajapaksas within the (Sirisena faction of) the SLFP.
There is no question that many in the UNP were jolted by the local elections debacle and they wanted leadership changes to stem the Party’s slide in popularity and to prevent the erosion of its political base. The threat of a no confidence motion was the means to force the current UNP leadership to carry out fundamental party reforms. That did not mean that the UNPers were actually going to vote against their own party in parliament to get rid of its leader. The two-timing SLFPers, on the other hand, saw in the no-confidence threat their ideal instrument to get rid of Ranil, and reunite Mahinda Rajapaksa and Maithripala Sirisena. In their reckoning, if they can accomplish these two goals they are politically secure for the rest of their lives. Their scheme must have run aground without everybody in the SLFP going along with it.
This is now borne out by the three abstaining ministers speaking out after the vote. Having gone too far, even hurling insults and innuendos at the Prime Minister and asking him publicly and at cabinet meetings to step down and avoid the no confidence vote, the likes of Dilan Perera, Susil Premajayantha and others, all of whom are graduates of the School of Impeachment (of CJ Shiranee Bandaranayake), could not dissociate themselves from the NCM project. At the same time, they did not have the abilities to carry forward the project. That should not be surprising given their record as non-performing ministers over the last twenty years.
The JO small minds then took over the project. To their credit they managed to get almost all the JO MPs to sign the no confidence motion. But only five among the two timing SLFPers were prepared to sign on to the NCM. And no one from the UNP, despite making noises, would cross the party line to add their signature to the NCM. Yet, the small minds and the two timers, hoping against hope that a good majority if not all of the SLFP and a good number of defectors from the UNP will vote for the NCM, decided to persist with the NCM project. This was much to the chagrin of seniors like Dinesh Gunawardena and the former President Mahinda Rajapaksa himself. Realizing the difficulty of making the UNP to break ranks and of forcing the SLFP to close ranks, the small minds behind the NCM decided to cajole those who were likely to vote against Ranil Wickremesinghe, and to castigate others who were likely to vote in support of him. The TNA fell into the second category and became the target of much public warning about the dangers of supporting the Prime Minister – both for the UNP and for the Tamils. Nothing worked.
The final tally of 126 Nays and 76 Yeas virtually divided along the results of the last (2015) parliamentary election, with the exception of the JVP. The outliers are the SLFPers who abstained on the vote. Their own logic should have persuaded them to vote against the motion. But they came across better than the SLFPers who voted for the motion, and certainly more than a few cuts above Nimal Siripala de Silva who characteristically managed to seat himself straddling the fence. Technically, he is assured of being in cabinet, again.
The JVP took a principled stand but it showed its lack of parliamentary smarts in not moving an amendment to the NCM. The amendment would have included as one of the reasons for the NCM, the present government’s failure to show any results in the investigation of corruption and crimes that were committed prior to 2015. This was the JVP’s criticism of the no confidence motion, but it did not follow through with a formal amendment. It shows the deterioration in parliamentary skills after four decades of presidential rule.
A JVP amendment may have got only the six JVP votes, 70 or more nays, and 122 or less abstentions. But it would have dramatically demonstrated that only six of our MPs are prepared to stand unequivocally against government corruption, past and present. Contrast that with the recent and successful parliamentary upheavals against corruption in South Korea and in South Africa. In both countries the legislature and the judiciary have combined to literally cause the heads of state to roll. Brazil is a different case where the fight against corruption is fractured along ‘class lines’ between those who are successors to the old military-civilian establishment, and the trade union forces that brought in democratic governance after decades of military rule.
It is neither clear nor certain if the defeat of the no confidence motion will create a new momentum to go after corruption without fear or favour or partiality. There has been no clarion call against corruption from either side of the government. After the vote, the Prime Minister, humbled and thankful, was at his vagueness best promising to fulfill the 2015 good governance promises. He is again talking motherhood about a development agenda. The President gave a lecture to the media on the interpretation of the local government election results and is now busy fighting a rearguard action to save his ministers who voted for the NCM, against the UNP’s insistence that they be removed from cabinet, as they should be. It is more than likely the renewed Sirisena-Wickremesinghe partnership will keep spinning the same old circles.
The JO/SLPP has never targeted corruption as a political weapon. How could they when they were the sole target of corruption allegations? That was until Mr. Ranil Wickremesinghe gave them the bond scam on a platter. Still the Rajapaksas studiously avoided protesting too much about the bond scam, and the Wickremesinghe-Rajapaksa quid pro quo became the most talked about secret in town. The smelly stuff hit the fan when President Sirisena decided to singularly expose the bond scam while allegedly protecting members of the previous government and the former first family from facing legal action for their infractions.
The findings of the Commission of Inquiry on bond transactions became the JO/SLPP’s fodder for the local elections and the text for the no confidence motion against the Prime Minister. The Joint Opposition is not going to bother about corruption anymore, except howling for Arjuna Mahendran’s head. Worse, the two major parties have reportedly taken corruption to the local bodies that have been in a deadlock with no party having an absolute majority. The ‘hung’ councils and the doubling of the total number of island-wide local councillors are testament to the governing skills of our parliamentarians who produced the new local election laws. On the other hand, rather than working with plural councils, the party hierarchies have apparently directed the bribing of local councillors to take control of the ‘hung’ local bodies. So what is going to change?
One effect of the no confidence motion has been to make the reforming of the United National Party, a national pre-occupation. Ranil Wickremesinghe, the lightning rod for all political blame, has been pilloried for everything that is wrong with the UNP, even by the political opponents of the UNP. But no one seems to be keen about pointing fingers for the unravelling of the SLFP. Have the Rajapaksas no responsibility for the withering state that the SLFP is currently in? The Indian political commentator Urmila Phadnis used to describe the SLFP as a ‘movement party.’ While in power, the Rajapaksas turned it into a ‘state party’. After their defeat, they have divided the party into two, taking away the bulk of the SLFP and turning it into a ‘new electoral party’. The rump of the party is left as a state party under President Maithripala Sirisena.
All in all, there is little basis to envision pleasing prospects but plenty of ground for gloomy prognosis. One silver lining is that public action can bring pressure on this government and more public action is necessary to yoke this government to work on a tight agenda of limited priorities over the remainder of its term. Left to itself the government will be all over the map expending everything and achieving nothing. In 2015, the people rescued the country from the fire to the frying pan. Now they face the risk of the country falling back into the fire.