The appointment of former Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa as the country’s Prime Minister replacing Ranil Wickremesinghe on Friday, was sudden but not surprising.
Given the highly fractured relationship between President Maithripala Sirisena and Prime Minister Wickremesinghe for the past year or two, and the mounting inner party pressure on the President to sack Wickremesinghe and appoint Rajapaksa in his place, Friday’s development was always in the realm of possibility.
But the timing of the President’s action was not anticipated.
There was mounting pressure on Sirisena from his colleagues in the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) to link up with Rajapaksa overlooking past animosity; oust Wickremesinghe, and cut off links with his United National Paty (UNP).
It was argued that Rajapaksa was after all a veteran of the SLFP; that he had left the SLFP only after Sirisena betrayed him and joined UNP to defeat him the January 8, 2015 Presidential election.
After founding the Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP), Rajapaksa had proved that he was the most popular leader in the country through the February 10, 2018 local body elections.
Sirisen and Rajapaksa had been meeting, though not under the glare of publicity. What was transpiring between the two, was only in the realm of speculation.
They had met very recently over dinner in former Minister S.B.Dissanayake’s house. The fact that both denied the known fact, fueled speculation that something significant was afoot. But no one knew for sure what exactly it was.
An alliance to fight the coming provincial council elections together against the UNP, was one of the possibilities mentioned. But no one imagined that Sirisena would actually sack Wickremesinghe and install Rajapaksa in his place.
This was because in April 2018, when there was a clamor from Sirisena’s colleagues to dismiss Wickremesinghe, lawyers pointed out that as per the 19th. Constitutional Amendment of 2015, the President cannot sack the PM. The PM would go only if he resigned or had quit parliament.
Then, in the same month, the Joint Opposition led by Rajapaksa presented a Vote of No Confidence against Wickremesinghe. But Wickremesinghe defeated it, allegedly with the help of a friendly country and money power. He had the wherewithal do that as he was in power as Prime Minister.
Sirisena-Wickremesinghe Divide Widens
In subsequent months, contradictions between Sirisena and Wickremesinghe sharpened to the point of no return.
Sirisena, who is a leftist, is rural based, and is a Sri Lankan cum Sinhalese Buddhist nationalist leader, could not get along with the right wing, secular, urban-based and pro-Western Wickremesinghe.
The two leaders kept challenging each other on every issue. Wickremesinghe would take decisions without consulting the Executive President, and the Executive President would countermand them using his Executive powers.
The two had clashed on foreign policy too. While Wickremesinghe had bowed to the onerous demands of the UN Human Rights Council on the judicial and other mechanisms for post-war ethnic reconciliation with the minority Tamils, Sirisena openly told the UN General Assembly recently that Sri Lanka does not favor foreign intervention of any kind in the matter of reconciliation.
The two leaders also differed on policies towards India and China. While Sirisena insinuated that the Indian intelligence agency RAW had a role in an alleged plot to assassinate him and the former Defense Secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa, Wickremesinghe pooh pooh it.
The President was critical of Wickremesinghe’s decision to give the Hambantota port to China on a 99 year lease with a 70% stake. He was also critical of the bid to give the contact to develop the East Terminal in Colombo port to India.
Friday’s sudden move on the part of the President came after the United Peoples’ Freedom Alliance (UPFA), a group of parties led by Sirisena, left the coalition government headed by Wickremesinghe.
The UPFA then teamed up with the Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP) led by Rajapaksa to make it a formidable force in parliament..
However, as on date, the Sirisena-Rajapaksa group does not have a majority in parliament. Together they have only 95 in a house of 225. They need 113 or 18 more for a simple majority.
Out of the 225 member House, 106 are in the United National Party (UNP)-led alliance, and 95 are with the UPFA (comprising Sri Lanka Freedom Party led by Sirisena, Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna and the Joint Opposition led by Mahinda Rajapaksa).
Sixteen are with Tamil National Alliance; 6 with Janatha Vimkthi Peramuna, and one each with the Eelam Peoples’ Democratic Party and the Sri Lanka Muslim Congress.
Rajapaksa has to prove his majority on the floor of the House when parliament is convened on November 16.. The President on Saturday prorogued parliament from Oct 27 to November 15.
Although Rajapaksa does not have the numbers, the President has the constitutional right to call him to form the government if, in his view, he can get majority support in it.
Political sources say that Rajapaksa will be able to get the 18 extra MPs needed to get the 113 MPs needed for a simple majority.
Seven UNP MPs are likely to join Rajapaksa. As of now, two UNP MPs, Vasantha Senanayake and Ananda Aluthgamage, have already defected to the Rajapaksa camp.
Minority Parties With Wickremesinghe
However the minority parties appear to be with Wickremesinghe for the time being at least.
At a press conference on Saturday, The Sri Lanka Muslim Congress chief, Rauff Hakeem, the All Ceylon Muslim Congress (ACMC) chief Rishad Bathiyutheen, Tamil Progressive Alliance (TPA) leaders Digambaram and Mano Ganesan ,along with Minister Champika Ranwaka of the Jathika Hela Urumaya, pledged continued support to Wickremesinghe.
The Tamil National Alliance (TNA) with 16 MPs will also support Wickremesinghe.
However, the Muslim and Indian Origin Tamil parties have the habit joining the government eventually, no matter what its political color.
Wickremesinghe Says Ouster is Unconstitutional
But Wickremesinghe has said that the appointment of Rajapaksa as Prime Minister was “unconstitutional”.
“I am still the Prime Minister of this country,” he said in a statement.
However, instead of going to court, he has opted for proving majority support on the floor of the House.
Art 42 (4) of the Sri Lankan Constitution, says that the President “shall appoint as Prime Minister the Member of Parliament, who, in the President’s opinion, is most likely to command the confidence of Parliament.” And that was the provision under which President Sirisena removed the Prime Minister.
But after the 19 th.Amendment was passed in 2015, Article 46 (2) of the constitution said that the Prime Minister shall continue to hold office till he: (a) resigns his office by a writing under his hand addressed to the President; or
(b) ceases to be a Member of Parliament.
Thus the President cannot sack him, Wickremesinghe contends.
Horse Trading in Full Swing .
Horse trading will be the order of the day from October 27 to November 15 when parliament (prorogued from Saturday October 27 to November 15) will meet to take a vote of confidence. The vote is expected to be taken on November 16.
According to political observers, President Sirisena’s decision to sack Wickremesinghe and hurriedly install Rajapaksa was meant to help the latter seduce MPs from Wickremesinghe’s United National Party (UNP) and the United National Front (UNF) to be able to form a government.
Ensconced in power as Prime Minister, Rajapaksa will be able to attract MPs wanting to be part of the government, it is said.
And by proroguing parliament from October 27 to November 15, President Sirisena has given Rajapaksa ample time to garner the support of MPs now with the UNP. To keep his flock together, Wickeremsinghe had asked for an early date to take a vote of confidence.
If Rajapaksa is not Prime Minister, and Wickemesinghe is, the latter will have the power to attract or retain the loyalty of MPs. This was shown clearly when Wickremesinghe faced a Vote of No Confidence in April 2018 and defeated it.
It was to avoid a repetition of that situation that Sirisena appointed Rajapaksa Prime Minister brazenly, despite the possibility of being accused of acting illegally and unconstitutionally.
Rajapaksa’s ability to attract MPs is enhanced further by the fact that he is President Sirisena’s candidate. In combination with Executive President Sirisena, Prime Minister Rajapaksa will be a formidable political force in parliament.
The duo are more than a match for Wickremesinghe, who is now out of power and unable to use the levers of power to dispense favors.
Meanwhile, the US, UK and the EU, have appealed to the powers-that-be in Sri Lanka to act according to the constitution. It is clear that they do not approve of the President’s action.