The “Sunday Observer” Political Editor
Talks about the ‘caretaker’ government appeared to have fizzled out late last week, with former President Mahinda Rajapaksa dismissing the claims following several days of inspired leaks in the media that the divided factions of the SLFP had finally reached a working arrangement.
Speaking to reporters at the Abhayarama temple in Narahenpita, the former President said he had never planned a “caretaker” administration. He said the discussions had been to formulate a response if such an offer was made.
“What caretaker government,” he asked reporters who asked him for the progress of their unity talks with President Maithripala Sirisena’s faction of the Sri Lanka Freedom Party, media reports said.
The dismissal comes following a much publicized meeting of the Joint Opposition-SLPP faction over dinner at the residence of SLPP Chairman Prof. G. L. Peiris last Tuesday (9).
During the meeting, at which former President Rajapaksa and former Economic Development Minister and SLPP frontliner Basil Rajapaksa had been present, there were mixed reactions to the prospect of entering into an alliance with the SLFP. A majority of the JO/SLPP members felt it would be politically unsound to enter into such an alliance at the moment, and that it would be better to form a Government only after winning a parliamentary election.
Members also questioned Prof. Peiris about how they would go about setting up such an interim administration, to which they were told the strategy could not be revealed, since that would help the UNP and its legal team to prepare the groundwork to stall the plans. During the meeting, former President Rajapaksa promised JO members that he would not make any final decisions with regard to an alliance without first consulting them.
The media hype over the past 10 days was precipitated by a wave of hysterical leaks from both sides engaging in the discussions to oust Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe and his UNFGG Government. The discussions were centred on the premise that the ‘interim’ set up would feature former President Rajapaksa as Prime Minister and a cabinet largely of his choice.
Constitutional options for setting up a ‘caretaker’ or interim government are severely limited under the provisions of the 19th Amendment to the Constitution. President Maithripala Sirisena cannot dissolve Parliament and call snap elections until it completes four and a half years of its term – in February 2020. To unseat the Premier, the JO-SLFP must defeat the Government’s budget or bring a motion of no confidence against him. In April 2018, the JO’s effort to defeat Prime Minister Wickremesinghe in a vote of no confidence failed miserably, after more than half of President Sirisena’s SLFP faction pulled out support at the eleventh hour. Instead of weakening his position in Parliament, the no faith vote strengthened Wickremesinghe’s hand, after he garnered the support of 121 MPs in the legislature to defeat the motion.
But despite these obvious constitutional hurdles, senior presidential aides admit ‘something is brewing’. President Sirisena himself admitted in internal discussions late last week that ‘all kinds of discussions’ were currently ongoing. Known to play his cards close to the chest, President Sirisena has given no inkling of his real plans or the progress of negotiations thus far, even to his most senior staffers.
The main movers and shakers behind the reunification project are frontliners of the ‘SLFP 15’ – the group of former SLFP ministers who decided to vote against Prime Minister Wickremesinghe in April this year. No longer part of the Government and largely unwelcome by the JO, the SLFP 16 are desperate to bridge the gaps between former President Rajapaksa and President Sirisena who is the current leader of the SLFP, in order to secure their political futures. UPFA National List MP S.B. Dissanayake is a chief protagonist of the project, along with former Sri Lanka Cricket President and Deputy Speaker, Thilanga Sumathipala. A meeting between Rajapaksa and President Sirisena was organized at Dissanayake’s Battaramulla residence on October 3, in a bid to help the leaders to work out some kinks in the negotiations. Reports so far indicate that Mahinda Rajapaksa, Basil Rajapaksa and Gotabaya Rajapaksa attended the meeting. At the meeting, the former President made it clear that there could be no forward movement on the realignment, unless the SLFP formally broke with the UNP and quit the Government.
Essentially, Rajapaksa was asking for a gesture of goodwill, to demonstrate that the moves to oust Premier Wickremesinghe were genuine and would not lead to another embarrassing no confidence motion type fiasco. Another ‘goodwill’ gesture being sought by the Rajapaksas pertained to the appointment of the new Chief Justice. The former President was keen for the most senior justice on the Supreme Court, Eva Wanasundera to be appointed to replace CJ Priyasath Dep who was to retire on October 12. In a July 2014 interview Justice Wanasundera admitted the former President had been one of her closest friends during their Law College days.
The discussions at Dissanayake’s residence ended without formal decisions being reached.
On Tuesday (16), President Sirisena will chair a meeting of the SLFP Central Committee at which matters pertaining to this purported marriage with the pro-Rajapaksa JO are expected to come up in a big way. On Friday, the Constitutional Council approved the nomination of Chief Justice Nalin Perera, finally ending speculation that Justice Wanasundera could succeed CJ Dep.
Under the amendment to the Judicature Act, which paved the way for the establishment for permanent high courts at bar to try complex financial crimes, the Chief Justice must refer cases pertaining to corruption and financial crime to these special high courts.
After the October 3 meeting, stories about the impending caretaker Government reached fever pitch. One week later, much of the bluster appears to have died down, but sources close to both sides say the effort has not been abandoned and moves could be made prior to the presentation of the budget.
Political observers noted that the feverish news cycle inspired by a series of leaks about the setting up of a caretaker government may have been aimed at sending a potent signal to the judiciary ahead of October 9.
Last Tuesday (9), three of the most prominent members of the Rajapaksa family – Namal, Gotabaya and Basil – appeared before three different courts to face charges of corruption and money laundering. Namal Rajapaksa, son and heir to former President Rajapaksa’s political legacy, took his place in the accused box at the Colombo High Court on October 9, as the trial continued into the controversial purchase of the HelloCorp call centre by companies owned by the former first son.
It was also D-Day for former Defence Secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa, who appeared at the Special High Court at Bar last Tuesday, after being indicted over the misuse of public funds to the tune of Rs 83 million to build a monument and museum in memory of his parents in his village of Medamulana. The news cycle had little effect, as the Court set trial dates for the former Defence Secretary’s case on December 4, a few days after the daily trials against former President Rajapaksa’s ex Chief of Staff, Gamini Senarath and others conclude on November 29. The D.A. Rajapaksa museum case, is a largely uncomplicated one, legal analysts explained, since the paper trail was clear. The former Defence Secretary is accused of using funds from the Land Reclamation Board to construct the memorial to his deceased parents. Getting these cases deferred is a priority for the former ruling family.
All this notwithstanding, with various political moves and counter-moves in the offing, the next few months in Sri Lanka will be fraught with political tensions and upheavals, observers said.