by Gagani Weerakoon
At the close of two years, the National Unity Government (NUG) of Sri Lanka has failed to maintain the confidence and trust of the people it enjoyed during the first three months of its tenure. However, political crisis or instability in Sri Lanka remains unchanged. The NUG is likely to complete its full term, but it will not be a cakewalk. The strongest points of the Government, thus far, include the following: the political will of the President and the Prime Minister to continue the NUG till 2020; absolute majority in the Parliament; willingness of the Tamil parties to cooperate with the Government; and the goodwill of the international community. Maintaining this status quo will be the main challenge for the Government over the next three years, Gulbin Sultana, a researcher with the South Asia Centre at the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses (IDSA) observed in her assessment on National Unity Government published in August 2017.
It was further observed that: “This discussion shows that at the end of two years, the Government has failed to maintain the confidence and trust of the people it enjoyed during the first three months of its formation.
There is no denying the fact that the Government has taken several positive measures keeping in mind the long-term interests of the country. Given its duration of just two years and the enormous complexities of problems facing the country, it is not easy for any government to resolve all the problems within such a short span of time. The opposition parties, particularly the UPFA (Rajapaksa loyalists) and the JVP, have, nevertheless, taken advantage of it and tried to mobilize the people against the Government.
However, the Government has not lost all popular support yet. Large sections of people have still pinned their hopes on the Government. Both the President and the PM have shown, on several occasions that they are prepared to rise above politics and pursue policies which they consider best for the country. On certain economic and foreign policy issues, the government is convinced about taking appropriate measures despite popular protests.
However, on domestic issues such as reconciliation or formulation of new Constitution, the Government is weighing the views of the people. So far, the Government has been able to handle the challenges efficiently. But, it remains to be seen as to how long the President and the PM will give priority to the NUG over their respective parties and political interests.
Ultimately, both Sirisena and Wickremesinghe are politicians, and none of them would like to take the blame for the declining popularity of their respective parties. Therefore, it can be argued that both Sirisena and Wickremesinghe are likely to continue till the time they are not confident of winning the next elections without the support of each other.
President Sirisena knows well that if he splits away from the NUG, Rajapaksa will get an upper hand within the UPFA and will create problems for him. As for the UNP, its position has improved significantly, but whether it would be able to form a Government on its own will be clear in the coming local elections. In other words, the upcoming Local Government elections will give a clear picture of the popularity of the UNP led by Wickremesinghe, UPFA led by Sirisena and the competing faction within the UPFA led by Mahinda Rajapaksa.”
As of today, most of these plus points asserted in the IDSA research paper hang in balance with 16 ministers who joined President Maithripala Sirisena in forming NUG, having resigned.
In the meantime, President Sirisena will leave for the United Kingdom to attend the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM) 2018 which will be held from tomorrow (16) to 20 April in London.
The formal opening of CHOGM takes place at Buckingham Palace on Thursday (19) morning after which leaders will convene for their first executive session.
On Friday morning, the Commonwealth Games Federation will host a breakfast for Heads of Government. The summit concludes later that day when leaders will issue their communiqué and a leaders’ statement after their retreat.
During his visit from 17-21 April Sri Lankan President is expected to meet British Prime Minister Theresa May and several other heads of Commonwealth States attending the summit.
The President has also been invited to deliver the keynote address at the inaugural session of the Conference on achieving the Sustainable Development Goals.
The President during his visit will also attend a special commemorative event to mark the 92nd birthday of British Queen Elizabeth II.
While he is attending the Royal Birthday Celebrations, people of Sri Lanka who elected him as the Head of the State, will be brace themselves for another year of political uncertainty and inconsistency of economic and social policies owing to the indecisiveness of the Executive President who has reduced the post to a mere namesake as pledged in his election Manifesto in 2015 January.
Though, the country as well as the international community celebrated the formation of NUG three years ago, it did not take long for them to get disillusioned of the great expectations they had.
The troubled relationship between President Sirisena and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe reached the pinnacle with it becoming common knowledge that the former giving legitimacy to the No-Confidence Motion against the latter. This was made quite evident with remarks made by many in during and after the Parliament debate on the NCM.
The 16 SLFP members who vowed to sit in the Opposition after resigning on Friday midnight still press for the SLFP to quit the Unity Government and thereby let the UNF to form a Government.
Labour Minister W. D. J. Seneviratne confirmed last night that the Ministers who voted for the NCM stepped down from their posts at midnight.
After several rounds of discussions the President agreed that they could sit in the Opposition while remaining as SLFP Members, Seneviratne told Ceylon Today.
He added that when Parliament is convened after the New Year the group will cross over.
Sports Minister Dayasiri Jayasekara said that they would demand the Central Committee to quit the Unity Government. The Central Committee is likely to be convened on 25 April after President Sirisena returns from the United Kingdom.
On Tuesday (10) for the first time since the election of President Sirisena and the formation of Yahapalana Unity Government, the Ministers from the SLFP boycotted the weekly Cabinet meeting, held under the chairmanship of the President, at the Presidential Secretariat.
According to sources, members of the United National Front (UNF) had told President Sirisena to resolve the internal crises of the SLFP immediately, before going for a Cabinet reshuffle
This follows a decision taken at the SLFP Central Committee meeting, held at President’s official residence on Monday (9) late at night.
While President Sirisena has insisted on the need to resolve matters and go for a Cabinet reshuffle before the dawn of Sinhala and Hindu New Year, several UNP ministers have insisted that the President consider whether to go for a Cabinet reshuffle or to appoint a fresh Cabinet altogether.
Minister Patali Champika Ranawaka has pointed out that President Sirisena has to decide on three main points, which includes whether the Unity Government should continue.
He had also said that first there should be a clear idea on whether the rest of the Ministers would continue, in the event the 16 SLFP Ministers who backed the No-Confidence Motion against Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe decided to quit the Government.
“If the rest of the SLFP Ministers continue with the Unity Government, should there be a new agreement or to continue under the current MoU signed between the UPFA and UNF? If not should the UNF form a Government alone?” were the other salient points Minister Ranawaka had made.
It has also been insisted that SLFP should immediately take a final decision on whether they are continuing with the Unity Government, as delaying matters any further could worsen the situation in the country and would affect the economy and the administration.
However, the SLFP Central Committee meeting, which was to be held on Wednesday (11), under the patronage of President Sirisena, got cancelled.
This was following two separate meetings held yesterday by the two factions of the SLFP members in the Unity Government.
A meeting led by UPFA General Secretary Mahinda Amaraweera and the SLFP General Secretary Duminda Dissanayake was held at the residence of Minister Amaraweera, which was attended by SLFP Ministers, Deputy Ministers and State Ministers, who were absent on the day the No-Confidence Motion against Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe was taken for debate, Deputy Minister of Ports and Shipping Nishantha Muthuhettigama revealed.
He said that it was also agreed that there should be no division within the SLFP and a multi-pronged proposal would be submitted to President Sirisena soon.
He also said that there would be another meeting with President Sirisena to deliberate on these proposals.
Meanwhile, the 16 SLFPers who met at Minister S.B. Dissanayake’s residence last evening had decided to meet President Sirisena today.
According to sources, they are planning to obtain the majority in the SLFP Central Committee and demand that the party should leave the Unity Government.
Sources also confirmed that they also decided not to attend Parliament till the matter is finalized at the next Central Committee meeting.
Prior to their resignation, there had been much debate whether the 16 SLFPers including Ministers could remain in the Government or the Cabinet. Constitutional law practitioners say that the removal and appointment of Cabinet Ministers should be done by the President in consultation with the Prime Minister.
“That decision should be taken by the President after consulting the Prime Minister. If the Prime Minister is of the view that he cannot work with those who have voted against him then the President should take a decision,” President of the Bar Association of Sri Lanka, President’s Counsel U.R. de Silva told Ceylon Today.
De Silva, PC, made his observations, when queried as to who had the authority to appoint or remove Cabinet Ministers.
He pointed out that the President can give the Ministers the option to resign, or appoint a new Cabinet of Ministers in consultation with the Prime Minister if he thinks that the Government cannot continue with them.
The Cabinet of Ministers with the President as its Head, which is in charge of the direction and control of the Government, is a part of the Executive branch of the Government and the process of governance, he said.
According to the Constitution, it is the President who is tasked with appointing the Parliamentarian who according to his/her opinion, is most likely to command the confidence of Parliament.
It is also imperative that, as per Article 46(2) of the Constitution, the Prime Minister continues to hold office as long as the Cabinet continues to function.
On the questions of the appointment and removal of a Cabinet Minister, and as to who is vested with the authority to do so and under what circumstances, and subject to what conditions, Article 43(1) of the Constitution says that while the President has the power to decide the number of the Ministers and Ministerial portfolios within the Cabinet and thence assign the said subjects and functions to such Ministers, he may do so in consultation with the Prime Minister, where he considers such consultation “to be necessary”.
Article 43(2) of the Constitution, however, states that, it is upon the advice of the Prime Minister that the President should appoint MPs including Ministers to be in charge of the Ministries that have been thus determined by the President.
Furthermore, Article 43(3) of the Constitution allows for the President to change the assignment of the subjects and the functions, and the composition of the Cabinet, “at any time”, provided that such change does not impact the continuity of the Cabinet and the Cabinet’s responsibility to Parliament.
However, Parliamentarian Dr. Jayampathy Wickremaratne PC, speaking to Ceylon Today, opined that Sri Lanka Freedom Party MPs, including Ministers, who had voted in favour of the recent No-confidence motion moved by the Joint Opposition against Prime Minister Wickremesinghe, a motion which he deemed as being against the Government and not solely the Premier, had no ethical right to continue to remain in the Government, as their pro-no faith motion vote was proof that they had lost confidence in the entire Government including also the Prime Minister and the President.
While, President Sirisena has clearly lost control both in governance as well as in his own political party, troubles for PM Wickremesinghe too seems to have not seen an end. The backbenchers who voted in favour of Wickremesinghe against the NCM on 4 April said they felt betrayed as the three-day UNP reform discussions ended with no concrete solution. In fact, they are planning to bring a fresh No-Faith Motion against Wickremesinghe in May.
The much anticipated changes in the United National Party leadership have become a damp squib, with the Party’s Working Committee and the Parliamentary Group, which met at Party Headquarters, Sirikotha, last evening, deciding to continue with Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe as their leader.
The decision was reached following lengthy discussions and Wickremesinghe pointing out that a new leader, who would take the reins of the Party, would not have adequate time to lead the Party to victory at the 2020 Presidential Election. Therefore, the Party had decided to hold a general convention before 30 April to appoint new office-bearers. Accordingly, new individuals will be appointed to key positions, including the Chairperson, General Secretary, Treasurer, National Organizer and three Deputy Leaders.