Sports journalists, who write previews about matches, be it cricket, rugby or football, often predict the outcome of such matches by stating that on paper side A or B should win but qualify their prediction by stating that the outcome would finally be determined by the actual performance of the teams on the day of the match.
The same cliché could well have been applied prior to the no-confidence motion against the Prime Minister in Parliament last week. On paper, the Prime Minster should have been assured of pulling through on the basis of the numbers the UNP could command (even without the four or five MPs who had openly sounded rebellious). He had the backing of his Cabinet colleagues from the Sri Lanka Muslim Congress, the All Ceylon Muslim Congress, the United Progressive Alliance, the Jathika Hela Urumaya as well as the Tamil National Alliance – parties which backed the Good Governance agenda of President Maithripala Sirisena on January 8, 2015.
Yet reflecting the glorious (or more correctly the inglorious) uncertainties of Sri Lankan politics, very few could have predicted the outcome in advance with certainty.
Finally, however, the no-confidence motion (NCM) was defeated comfortably and its supporters who were so cocky as to predict a victory for themselves by a minimum of seven and a maximum of more than 50 had to eat humble pie.
One would expect, therefore, that the Government can settle down to business and accelerate the process of implementing the promises made at the Presidential Election of January 8, 2015. But there are disturbing signs on the horizon that this may not happen and further steps need to be taken if the mandate is to be realised in full measure.
Additionally, it is very apparent that the one of the objectives of this Government, which was to change the political culture, is a long way from being realised. The mad scramble to take control of the newly constituted local bodies is only one feature of the decadent political culture prevailing in this country.
The NCM against the Prime Minister provide interesting insights into some of the political parties represented in Parliament.
The Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna early in the runup to the NCM announced its stand that while it was of the view that the failure of the Government to bring to book those in the previous Government accused of corruption should also have been included in the motion, they would still support the NCM.
One can admire the JVP for taking a stand based on its own convictions early and articulating its position and thus providing the public an opportunity to have an informed discussion on the merits and demerits of the motion. In recent times, however, the JVP while taking up principled positions on many matters often loses sight of the larger picture and sometimes can indirectly contribute to the very consequences it does not wish to see happening.
At the January 8, 2015 Presidential Election, the JVP took up the position that it did not have confidence in the Alliance that President Maitripala Sirisena headed but in the larger interest of getting rid of the previous Government it took the default option of supporting him. In the case of the NCM, too, the JVP without compromising on its stated position could have abstained from voting in the larger interest of not strengthening the Joint Opposition whose policies they do not condone.
The JVP will have to be mindful of what happened when the LSSP left the United Front Government headed by Sirima Bandaranaike in 1975. The LSSP launched a blistering campaign against the SLFP for the next two years; the ultimate beneficiary of this was the UNP which romped home with a five-sixths majority at the Parliamentary Elections of 1977 without any benefit accruing to the LSSP. The JVP while playing its useful and constructive role as a watchdog of the people should ensure that it does not end up unintentionally paving the way for the return of the Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna.
The Tamil National Alliance for some inexplicable reason did not clearly take a stand on the NCM until the last moment. Additionally while participating in the debate in Parliament after explaining its thinking on the NCM it very quickly turned to its agenda of the grievances and solutions to the problems of the Tamil people which was not relevant to the main question before the House.
Additionally TNA MP Selvam Addaikalanathan has stated that in return for their support the Prime Minster has promised to implement ten demands put forward by the TNA. Whether this is true or not is not clear as there has been no independent confirmation of such an agreement. Besides, most of these form part of the Yahapalana Government’s policy and do not require independent confirmation once again.
While one has to appreciate the flexible approach of the TNA in the constitutional reform process, it is unfortunate that by its imprudent actions it is providing an opportunity to the Joint Opposition to mislead the people. The JO spokesmen have already begun to twist the reference to the so-called agreement to adopt a new constitution by interpolating the word ‘federal’ and describing it as an agreement to adopt a federal constitution.
The SLMC and the ACMC also true to form sought to cash in on the PM’s discomfiture and delayed their decision on the NCM until the last moment. What the purpose of such delay is not yet clear but the two parties did themselves a disservice because the public began to speculate and attribute unflattering reasons for the dragging of their feet based on the track record of the two parties.
The UNP for its part was able to put its best foot forward and the Prime Minister was able to marshal all his forces and obtain near hundred percent support from his party. Even his detractors clearly decided that the larger interest of the UNP demanded that by supporting the NCM they should not cut the nose to spite the face.
The next challenge for the UNP is its internal party reforms. What has to be done to ensure a win-win reform for the Prime Minister and for his detractors, and most importantly for the UNP itself, is obvious. But this column believes that it is the exclusive right of the UNPers to decide on this and, therefore, desists from stating what may be the obvious solution that will satisfy all the stakeholders of the UNP.
The Joint Opposition for its part suffered a severe setback as a result of the aborted vote of no-confidence which has taken the gloss off its success at the recent local council elections. It has also brought to the public domain divisions within the Joint Opposition with several Government and JVP speakers referring to the ‘Gotabaya kalliya’ and the ‘Basil kalliya’.
What is probably most interesting in the NCM saga is what went on behind the scenes in discussions within SLFP ranks and how the split in the ranks of the SLFPers at voting was engineered. Sixteen of them including Ministers, State Ministers and Deputy Ministers voted for the NCM while 26 abstained.
Right from the outset Ministers Susil Premajayanth and S.B. Dissanayake made public pronouncements that there was no way the SLFP could oppose the NCM and, therefore, they would support it. They, however, went on to say that the SLFP Central Committee would make the final decision. It is not clear whether the SLFP CC actually met but it was evident that no decision had been taken by the SLFP CC because the SLFP Parliamentary group had met with the President on the day before the vote and discussed the stand they should take.
In the meantime, there was growing consensus among the SLFP group that they should not support the NCM with at least nine Ministers deciding to actually vote against the motion. A few of them had already drafted their speeches setting out the reasons for voting against the NCM.
It was in this backdrop that the SLFP group met the President on the night of April 3. At this meeting Ministers S. B. Dissanayake and Deputy Speaker Thilanga Sumathipala stated that sufficient numbers were not forthcoming in support of the NCM and suggested the option of abstaining from voting. The President had advised the SLFP group not to involve him in the decision making and for them to meet without him and take the final decision.
Pursuant to this, the SLFPers had met at the UPFA General Secretary Mahinda Amaraweera’s residence, at which the decision was taken to abstain.
When the voting took place on the NCM that evening, however, those SLFPers who had originally intended to vote against the NCM but decided to abstain in accordance with the decision at UPFA General Secretary’s residence were in for a rude shock when sixteen of their colleagues voted in support of the NCM. Clearly they had been, to use cricketing parlance once again, been clean bowled by a ‘doosra’ sent by those who wanted to prevent them from voting against the NCM.
One SLFP MP complained that they had been the victims of a conspiracy to prevent them taking a decision of their choice. This allegation is further corroborated by the fact that two signatories to the motion, Nishantha Muthuhettigama and Cader Masthan, had changed their mind to vote in support of the motion and abstained from voting in accordance with the decision by the SLFP group to abstain.
One would have expected the SLFPers to have resigned from the ministerial portfolios before they voted against their own Prime Minister. However, they not only did not do so but are now saying they would resign only if the President asks them to do so. However, what they do not seem to have realised is that they have forfeited their right to remain in their positions by their own conduct and that they should maintain their self-respect and resign before they are compelled to do so.
It is time now for the Government to quickly get back to work and complete the unfinished business of fulfilling the promises to the people. It has been announced that a new cabinet is to be constituted. It would be advisable for a new Cabinet when taking oaths to take a separate oath pledging to commit themselves to fulfilling the promises made by President Sirisena at the January 8, 2015 election. This will ensure that those who take office as ministers are under no illusions as to what policy they have to implement rather than causing conflict within Government later.