By the Political Correspondent of the “Sunday Times”
President Maithripala Sirisena, leader of the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) took the unprecedented step of urging ministers of his own party to boycott last Tuesday’s weekly Cabinet meeting – perhaps a first such move in a practising democracy.
In doing so, he was cushioning a feared fallout from a widespread call by members of the Central Committee, the party’s policy making body, to quit the coalition or “the national unity Government.” They were to take a final decision at a second CC meeting on Wednesday but Sirisena, though he promised, did not summon one. He may not have wanted to be thrust with a decision to quit the coalition. He told the UNP ministers that most wanted to quit the Government. Thus began a tense political drama that continued throughout Wednesday and Thursday.
Sirisena believed that the boycott would be enough of a tit-for-tat for a letter Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe had written to him last week. It had conveyed a decision by the UNP parliamentary group and the Working Committee not to sit together with the anti-Wickremesinghe SLFP ministers at cabinet meetings in particular.
The UNP sought their removal. The six SLFP ministers together with the Deputy Speaker, four State Ministers and five Deputy Ministers voted for the motion of no-confidence against the Premier in Parliament and thus he was unable to repose his confidence on them, it was pointed out.
If official cabinet spokesperson Minister Rajitha Senaratne was to be believed, the 16 ministers, state and deputy ministers will have their positions restored only if they apologise for what they did. His claim that Sirisena was awaiting the outcome of the CC meeting on Wednesday to decide on a reshuffle turned out to be incorrect. Sirisena chose not to summon one and matters had taken a different turn though the spokesperson was in the dark.
Those who voted in favour of the motion were Ministers Dayasiri Jayasekera, S.B. Dissanayake, Susil Premajayantha, Anura Priyadarshana Yapa, Chandima Weerakkody, W.D.J. Seneviratne, State Ministers Lakshman Yapa Abeywardena, T.B. Ekanayake, Dilan Perera, Sudarshini Fernandopulle and Deputy Ministers Anuradha Jayaratne, Sumedha G. Jayasena, Susantha Punchinilame, Lakshman Wasantha Perera. Taranath Basnayake and Deputy Speaker Thilanga Sumathipala.
President cancels engagements
They resigned en masse on Wednesday night after a rather stormy meeting with Sirisena. He does not want to fill the vacancies caused in the hope that the six ministers in question would change their mind. Hence, he wants to assign their portfolios to those serving SLFP ministers.
Sirisena chaired the “UNP only” Cabinet meeting on Tuesday morning. He made clear it was his views that the coalition should continue and declared he proposed to effect a ministerial reshuffle on Thursday. On Wednesday, he cancelled two engagements. He was busy with a meeting with Premier Wickremesinghe about the imbroglio over the ministers and the reshuffle. A planned helicopter trip to Polonnaruwa to take part in an aluth sahal or rice harvest festival was cancelled.
Another which was delayed by hours was in Colombo to receive credentials from five new diplomats representing Morocco, Austria, the United Arab Emirates, Poland and Tanzania. The change in schedule made clear Sirisena wanted to clinch a deal to continue the coalition with the UNP with a ministerial reshuffle before the next meeting of the CC could be summoned. Otherwise, a decision by the CC to pull out would have left Sirisena stranded with a small number in the SLFP. He would then have to narrow his option to just one choice — ask the UNP to form a Government.
Sirisena disclosed to the UNP ministers at the Cabinet meeting that some MPs (including ministers, state and deputy ministers) had decided to cross over to the ‘Joint Opposition’ benches. It seemed a strange paradox that he was conveying to his coalition partner in so many words that the no-confidence motion had further split his SLFP, leaving some to part ways. Coming formally from none other than the President and leader of the SLFP was good news for the UNP. That it would enhance the UNP’s bargaining power and even its standing in the coalition will be a direct outcome of this split. That it would consequently strengthen Wickremesinghe and weaken Sirisena was known even before the no-faith motion was debated. The ‘Joint Opposition’de facto leader, former President Mahinda Rajapaksa, confirmed these MPs were joining his ranks.
He told the Sunday Times this week, “The 16 MPs including ministers will cross over to the Opposition benches on April 19. It can even be a few more than the 16. Even if we were let down by the SLFP leadership, including President Sirisena, despite an assurance that they will produce the numbers besides those names we offered for the passage of the no-confidence motion, the SLFP MPs joining us will strengthen us even further. As a result, we will have more public support. This has come as a death knell for the SLFP.”
The Sunday Times has learnt that the MPs who plan to cross over will still call themselves MPs of the SLFP, perhaps a move that would prevent them from getting entangled in legal issues. A corollary of that position would mean that they would be under the ‘leadership’ of Sirisena who is head of the party. Last week, Rajapaksa said he spoke to Sirisena on the motion and he had thereafter sent emissaries to pursue the matter. On Wednesday night, the 16 MPs met with Sirisena for a discussion.
He was to tell them of the UNP position that the UNP would not wish to work with them. Thereafter, the group offered their resignations.
If urging the SLFP ministers to boycott the cabinet meeting was unprecedented in Sri Lankan politics, there was an equally significant development at last Monday night’s SLFP Central Committee meeting.
A majority of the speakers were adamant that the SLFP should quit the coalition. Each had a tale of woe. They insisted that they could not work with the UNP leadership. There were exceptions, too. It included former President Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga, Minister Sarath Amunugama and Mahinda Amaraweera who were among those who wanted to stay put in the National Unity coalition.
An angry Kumaratunga was to point out that the people gave a mandate when they voted Sirisena on January 8, 2015 to carry out a programme of work. She left the meeting thereafter. Presidential aides nevertheless spoke through media reports about a retort by Sirisena that the 2015 victory was due to his own charisma. He challenged whether anyone in the UNP could have won and added that was the reason why he was pitted.
It is in the light of heavy pressure from CC members to quit the coalition that Sirisena bought time for at least 24 hours from them to discuss issues with his coalition partner. That was why a Central Committee meeting was also fixed for Tuesday. Primarily, it was the imbroglio over the UNP demarche that it would not sit with the 16 MPs and therefore they should be removed.
A second CC meeting and a firm decision to quit the coalition would have left him stranded. And such pressure would have simply relegated Sirisena to rely on a small number of his backers and left him with only one option. That is to ask the UNP to form its own Government. Did he, therefore, consolidate his position somewhat by telling the UNP cabinet ministers that he would effect a reshuffle on Thursday — a strong message that he would like to continue the coalition? It thus becomes a fait accompli when the Central Committee meets next after his return from London where he will take part in the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting. The visit itself highlights the parlous state of Sri Lanka’s overseas diplomatic missions. There is no High Commissioner in London; nor is there an Ambassador in Washington D.C. In Canada also, the High Commissioner’s post is also due to fall vacant.
This was perhaps in his mind going by the two meetings he had on Wednesday. One was in the afternoon with ministers and MPs who absented themselves from voting on the motion. The next, in the night, was with the 16 members who voted in favour of the no-faith motion and told him they would quit.
Ministers who abstained met Sirisena on Wednesday afternoon for a 90-minute session where issues arising from the defeated no-confidence motion were discussed.
Among those taking part were Ministers Sarath Amunugama, Mahinda Samarasinghe, Duminda Dissanayake, Mahinda Amaraweera, Ranjith Siyambalapitiya, Piyasena Gamage, A.H.M. Fowzie, Lakshman Seneviratne, M.L.A.M. Hisbullah, Nishantha Muthuhettigama (a signatory to the no-confidence motion though he abstained), Faiszer Musthapha, Nimal Siripala de Silva, Indika Bandaranaike and Sarathie Dushmantha and Cader Masthan, (also a signatory to the no-confidence motion though he abstained).
SLFP group meets PM
The delegation said they were in favour of continuing the coalition and “strengthen the hand of Sirisena.” They said that the 16 who voted for the no-confidence motion would have to face the consequences but should be allowed to remain in the SLFP so that their existing strength of 41 is maintained. They said they were also keen to ensure that the cabinet reshuffle is carried out before April 15. They asked for Sirisena’s permission to negotiate with Premier Wickremesinghe to arrive at an arrangement. Approval was granted. From there a telephone call was made to the Premier.
Later that evening, the delegation met Premier Wickremesinghe at Temple Trees and apprised him of the outcome of their talks. They made clear that during talks Sirisena had agreed to let the group of 16 face the consequences but still remain in the SLFP. Wickremesinghe took up the position that he would have to consult his other party seniors. The delegation said they would also like to take part in the same discussion and explain matters. Hence, a meeting was arranged for 7 p.m. the same night. In the ensuing discussion, the UNP leadership strongly argued on the difficulties involved in dealing with the six ministers who have publicly declared they have no confidence in their Prime Minister.
At this meeting, after a lengthy discussion, it was agreed to recommend to Sirisena that a cabinet reshuffle could go ahead. This was on the basis that none of those in the group of 16 was going to serve in a new cabinet. It was also agreed that any names of new SLFP nominees put forward, if they were not agreeable to the UNP, should be discussed between Sirisena and Wickremesinghe. That newly won assurance was also significant to the UNP which could veto any one whom it is not in favour.
This was Wednesday evening. The delegation then went back to Sirisena’s Paget Road (Mahagamsekera Mawatha) residence to brief him on the outcome of the talks with the Premier. The result — a meeting between Sirisena and Wickremesinghe again on Thursday morning. Wickremesinghe had to put off his planned journey to Nuwara Eliya for the New Year holidays as a result. With all hurdles cleared, they discussed the reshuffle that would take place that day. A source close to the Presidency said that the atmosphere was “very cordial” and Sirisena even agreed to give the Samurdhi portfolio to the UNP in return for the Public Administration Ministry for the SLFP. The Samurdhi portfolio was held by Minister S.B. Dissanayake who voted for the no-faith motion. Dissanayake was criticised on the floor of the House by a UNP MP for sabotaging the Samurdhi handouts prior to the local government elections to give the Rajapaksa party a distinct advantage.
At the time of writing (prior to the Avurudhu holidays), plans were to fill the positions left vacant by the resignation of the six ministers from the SLFP. Sirisena believes that the six ministers could be persuaded during the course of time to accept portfolios subject to some arrangement with the UNP. Hence, he is to temporarily assign the six vacant ministries to other SLFP ministers until a major reshuffle is carried out when he returns from London.
Earlier, it was proposed to appoint Arumugam Thondaman, A.H.M. Fowzie, Piyasena Gamage, Lakshman Seneviratne, Lasantha Alagiyawanna and Mohanlal Grero as new ministers. On the UNP side, former Finance Minister Ravi Karunanayake was to be re-inducted to the cabinet. In fact Wickremesinghe raised the matter with Sirisena during his 8 a.m. meeting yesterday. However, Sirisena declared he would not allow that appointment and went on to explain that his name has been associated with the Central Bank bond scam. At the time of writing, the temporary ministerial changes carried out at 5 p.m. Thursday.
The portfolios held by six ministers who resigned have been temporarily re-assigned to three also from the SLFP. They are Sarath Amunugama, Minister of Skills Development and Vocational Training, Science Technology and Research (previously held by Chandima Weerakody and Susil Premjayantha) Ranjith Siyambalapitiya Minister of Disaster Management (held by Anura Priyadarshana Yapa), Faiszer Musthapha, Minister of Sports (held by Dayasiri Jayasekera).
Malik Samarawickrema was sworn in as Social Employment, Welfare and Kandyan Hertage (held by S.B.Dissanayake) and Ministry of Labour and Labour Relations (held by W.D.J. Seneviratne).
The Social Employment, Welfare and Kandyan Heritage Ministry has now been given to the UNP. In return, the SLFP will name a Minister for the Public Administration Ministry during the planned major reshuffle.
Sirisena moved deftly earlier and chose not to call the second CC meeting. Now, he has clinched a deal with the UNP to continue the coalition. This is after telling Tuesday’s weekly cabinet that he would carry out a cabinet reshuffle.
Although official spokesperson Minister Rajitha Senaratne declared at a news briefing on Wednesday that a reshuffle hinged on that day’s Central Committee meeting, there was no such event. He was quite clearly unaware of it. The CC meeting is now to be held after Sirisena’s return. That would naturally endorse Sirisena’s decision to go ahead.
On Tuesday afternoon, after the cabinet meeting, Sirisena chaired the first meeting of the National Economic Council (NEC) since the Cabinet Committee on Economic Management (CCEM) under Prime Minister Wickremesinghe was abolished. The 90-minute meeting was attended by Wickremesinghe but he made no major contribution. Since the Cabinet decision on March 20, the NEC has taken charge of all functions under the CCEM. The official’s committee of the CCEM has also been abolished.
Both for the SLFP and the UNP, gearing the parties for the elections ahead has become a tough task. It is more difficult for the SLFP than its coalition partner with many a branch organisation being non-functional. This was first experienced when the party was on the lookout for candidates for the February 10 local elections and found it difficult. The latest split will make it worse. There has also been strong criticism against SLFP General Secretary Duminda Dissanayake who has backed the UNP. Added to that is United People’s Freedom Alliance (UPFA) General Secretary Mahinda Ameraweera. Though he lent his official residence in Colombo for meetings by backers of the no-confidence motion, he abstained together with Dissanayake. A major challenge for them would be the choosing of candidates when provincial council elections are held.
Relatively, the UNP district and electoral level organisations have functioned though one of their biggest drawbacks has been the lack of communications to and from Siri Kotha , their headquarters. Some of the issues afflicting the party echoed in the halls of ‘Temple Trees’ the previous Saturday (April 7). This was during a meeting of the UNP parliamentary group and the Working Committee. Some speakers including Ajith Perera and Sujeeva Senasinghe advocated a leadership change. Minister Harin Fernando who was critical of President Sirisena also touched on the subject. Their proposal was shot down by Ministers Mangala Samaraweera, Sarath Fonseka and Vajira Abeywardene. They said Wickremesinghe should continue as leader.
Although the role for a Council, elected by the joint meeting, is yet to be clearly defined, its main task is expected to be to undertake structural changes and ensure they are carried out. Wickremesinghe will appoint senior office bearers for different party positions. Their terms expire this month. UNP sources said he will appoint a full time General Secretary for the party so he could devote his attention to re-building and re-organisation efforts. Among the criteria, these sources said, would be a person who has demonstrated continued loyalty to the party and is capable of delivering on the tasks assigned. Heavy lobbying is now being carried out by different claimants.
SLPP holds post-mortem
An influential section of the Sri Lanka Podujana Pakshaya (SLPP) who swept the local polls has also been soul searching over the failure of the no-confidence motion. One of them, who did not wish to be identified, said there were four factors — the power of the Government, money, international pressure and public opinion. “Whilst the first three were not with us, public opinion was divided. There was uncertainty,” one of them said adding that “no members of the Tamil or Muslim community supported the motion.” Another point this section pointed out was how some SLFP ministers did not heed President Sirisena’s advice. Sirisena has, however, denied any involvement with the no-confidence motion. The ‘JO’ was also divided over the merits and demerits of the motion though it voted in full strength.
If Premier Ranil Wickremesinghe survived the no-confidence motion, interesting enough Sirisena, who gave tacit support to the motion, too has survived though the project he envisaged — a new Prime Minister — misfired. In the process Wickremesinghe, as was expected, has emerged stronger. Though technically, the group of 16 will sit in the Opposition benches as SLFPers (under the de jure leadership of Sirisena), they are quite clearly a new entity, one that Sirisena has lost in his ambitious gamble.
With a new unity, the “Yahapalanaya” (good governance) government moves towards a new lease of life for the rest of its 18 month tenure. Unlike the period it has ruled so far, the political minefields it has to steer through are more complex. With an increase in fuel prices imminent after the national New Year, its snowballing effect on the mounting cost of living would be unimaginable.
Added to that is the rapidly deteriorating law and order situation. Despite the change in the Law and Order portfolio from one to another, the public at large now fear walking into a Police Station to complain over acts of injustice. Not unless they know someone who is in some way connected. They fear the Police as much as they fear the criminals. The hierarchy remains unconcerned. At one premier greater Colombo police station, a caller rang to complain to the Station Duty Officer (SDO) at late night about an emergency. He was told that he was “doing his rounds.” As the name implies, the SDO is expected to be at the station. This notwithstanding, the Government is to fast track investigations into cases involving those in the previous Rajapaksa administration. More arrests are expected in the coming days and weeks.
Contrary to the many official news releases, the economic situation has been cause for serious concern, particularly for those in the private sector. All this and more will be cause for worry for a relatively old Government in a relatively new garb.