The continuing political crisis in Sri Lanka has resulted in a great numbers game being played now. The aim of the game is to gain majority support among members of Parliament. Both Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe as well as the purported Prime minister Mahinda Rajapaksa who was appointed amidst controversial circumstances by President Maithripala Sirisena need to command the confidence of the House when the currently prorogued Parliament is re-convened.The immediate objective of both the Maithripala -Mahinda camp as well as the Ranil Wickremesinghe camp is to win the numbers game.Both sides need the minimum magic number of 113 to gain a majority of at least one in a legislature of 225.
When the crisis began, the Ranil Wickremesinghe led United National Front consisting of the UNP and other Tamil and Muslim parties had 107 seats, The combined strength of the Sirisena led UPFA and SLFP factions, the Joint opposition – Podujana Peramuna MP’s led by Mahinda Rajapaksa and the group of 16 SLFP/UPFA “orphaned”MP’s numbered 95. After the splintering and defections began both sides now have over a 100 each. The Sirisena -Rajapaksa duo however want at least 120 MP’s in hand before a vote count is taken on or before the 16th. It is the final floor test in the House tht will determine the outcome of the current crisis. The UNP led Govt received a morale booster when the Tamil National Alliance(TNA) officially extended issue -based support to “De Jure” Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe.
The new Sirisena-Rajapaksa “ De -Facto” Govt has at the moment 17 ministers including Sirisena,8 state ministers and 8 deputy ministers.Almost all the ministers are from the SLFP factions, UNP renegades and other parties like the EPDP and CWC. The core group of Joint opposition MP’s are not taking any posts so that those crossing over from other parties could be accommodated. Intensive campaigning is going on by both sides. Mahinda’s side is enticing as many MP’s as possible from other parties.Rani’s side is trying hard to restrain its members from crossing over. It is also trying to woo a few MP’s from the other side but with little success so far.
President Sirisena, his newly appointed Prime minister Mahinda Rajapaksa, brother Basil Rajapaksa and sons Namal and Yoshita Rajapaksa are spearheading the hunt for MP’s on one side.They are being aided by stalwarts such as Dulles Alahapperuma, SB Disanayake, Susil Premajayantha etc. Gotabhaya Rajapaksa issued a statement supporting the new Government but has not engaged in fishing for MP’s.A large number of UNP Parliamentarians along with influential UNP working committee members are canvassing on Ranil Wickremesinghe’s behalf. Chief among them are Mangala Samaraweera, Daya Gamage, Harin Fernando, Mujibur Rahman and Sagala Ratnayake. Also in the fray is Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga who has managed to prevent some MP’s with a SLFP bsckground from crossing over to Mahinda’s side.
The situation is fluid and fickle. Loyalties and affiliations fluctuate rapidly. Two examples being that of parliamentarians Wasantha Senanayake and Vadivel Suresh. Senanayake the great grandson of the “Father of the Nation” D.S. Senanayake, announces he is crossing over to Mahinda’s side from abroad. He Returns to Lanka and meets Ranil Wickremesinghe assuring him of his loyalty. Wasantha then surfaces as a cabinet minister – in charge of Tourism and Wildlife – being sworn in by Sirisena. Vadivel Suresh is photographed wrapping a “Ponnaadai” (golden shawl) around Mahinda’s shoulders amidst speculation that he has gone over to the Rajapaksas. He is next seen sitting meekly with folded hands in front of Ranil explaining that he merely paid a courtesy call to Mahinda and blamed the media for distorting news. Then in another somersault Suresh is at the swearing in ceremony being sworn in as a State minister of Plantation Industries by Sirisena.
Five UNP’ers including Senananayake and Suresh who defected to the Sirisena-Rajapaksa administration were sworn in together by President Sirisena. The others are Dr.Wijeyadasa Rajapakshe the new Minister of Education and Higher Education, Deputy minister of Tourism and Wildlife Ananda Aluthgamage and State minister of Environment Dunesh Gankanda. More UNP MP’s were expected to follow this famous five. So the UNP hierarchy intensified efforts to prevent more cross overs.
A few days Later the UNP heard that Kurunegala District MP S.B.Nawinne was planning to cross over.Nawinne a former North Western province chief minister was a long standing SLFP’er who jumped ship after Maithripala won the Presidential poll. He contested as a UNF candidate under the Elephant symbol in August 2015. Upon hearing that Nawinne was planning to become a minister under “Premier”Mahinda’s cabinrt UNP National Organizer Daya Gamage and vetweran Wayamba politician Gamini Jayawickrama Perera flew to Kurunegala by Helicopter in a last minute bid to stop him.But Nawinne travelled by car from Kurunegala to Colombo via Negombo and got sworn in as Cultural affairs minister.Another MP tipped to cross over is Ven. Athureliya Rathana Thero.
The prize catch which Basil Rajapaksa is yet angling for is a group of UNP Parliamentarians led by Ravi Karunanayake. The former Finance and Foreign Affairs minister is supposedly cheesed off with Ranil Wickremesinghe for not re-appointing him minister as promised earlier. According to Ravi’s friends, Karunanayake feels Ranil is prevented from doing so by erstwhile ministerial colleagues Malik Samarawickrama and Kabir Hashim. Apparently Ravi Karunanayake has earned the support of a “Ginger Group”of UNP backbenchers by dispensing financial favours during his stint as Finance minister. At least seven of these MP’s could follow Ravi into the Sirisena -Rajapaksa camp if Karunayake opts to change sides. But the hitch is thar Ravi Karunanayake wanted the Finance or Foreign Affairs ministry both of which could not be given to him by Maithripala and Mahinda.. He was offered an alternative “economic”ministry which Ravi is reluctant to accept. However Ravi Karunanayake was seen at the Peoples Protest in support of Ranil. He has also had a “heart to heart”chat with Wickremesinghe. Only time will tell whether Ravi remains loyal to Ranil or not.
Since talks with Ravi Karunanayake are yet to bear fruit, efforts are also underway to woo members of the UNP ginger group individually like Gampaha district MP Dr.Kavinda Jayawardana and Kandy district MP Mayantha Dissanayake. Intensive efforts were also on to win over other UNP stalwarts who are not so favourably inclined towards Ranil like Palitha Range Bandara, Lucky Jayawardena and Palitha Kumara Thewarapperuma. Thewarapperuma has rejected all offers but talks with the others kept proceeding.
Then Range Bandara dropped a bombshell by disclosing publicly that he had been offered a hefty bribe of 50 Crore rupees to defect. He also released what were allegedly tape recordings of the telephone conversations. One of the persons who made the offer was allegedly SB Dissanayake. Another person allegedly implicated was the coordinator of Yoshita Rajapaksa the second son of Mahinda and Shiranthi Rajapaksa.Range Bandara is to lodge a complaint to the Police and Bribery commission.
While the UNP was being targeted for cross overs, a segment of the SLFP too was in the throes of a crisis. A group of SLFP parliamentarians led by SLFP Gen -Secy and cabinet minister Duminda Dissanayake was reluctant to join with the Rajapaksa led Govt because they were not sure of their future under a Rajapaksa led regime. Fundamentally they feared re-nomination at the next hustings. Dissanayake informed Maithripala that they would remain as an “independent “Group in Parliament and abstain from voting. However after several rounds of talks with Mahinda, Maithripala and Basil, an agreement was reached and guarantees were given. A group of 13 SLFP Parliamentarians including Duminda Dissanayake took oaths together as Ministers, state ministers and deputy -ministers. A few days later senior SLFP politician AHM Fowzie took oaths as State minister of National Unity. However some others with SLFP antecedents like Lasantha Alagiyawanna and Hirunika Premachandra still remain within the Ranil camp mainly due to the restraining influence of Chandrika Kumaratunga.
Initiatives have also been taken to woo Muslim parties. A very friendly equation exists between All Ceylon Makkal Congress (ACMC) leader Rishad Bathiudeen and Basil Rajapaksa. According to ACMC sources senior MP Ameer Ali Shihabdeen conducted negotiations with Basil Rajapaksa because Rishad was out of the country. The Rajapaksas expect Rishad and Ameer Ali along with other ACMC parliamentarians to cross over by Nov 5th. The Industries and Commerce ministry is being kept in readiness for Bathiudeen.
However after returning to Colombo Rishad has expressed criticism of the way in which Mahinda was appointed Premier. He has pledged support to Prime minister Ranil Wickremesinghe. However Rishad is constantly under pressure to cross over. Meanwhile Eastern Province Governor and ex-Foreign affairs minister Rohitha Bogollagama has been interacting with Ameer Ali Shihabdeen in a bid to entice him into the Govt in formation. If Ameer Ali defects that would place Rishad Bathiudeen in a quandary.
Since Sri Lanka Muslim Congress leader Rauff Hakeem is regarded as being close to the UNP and Ranil Wickremesinghe, the SLMC is perceived as being hard to get. However Basil Rajapaksa is said to have made a breakthrough with Amparai district SLMC Parliamentarian MHM Harees. He is apparently ready to jump ship and is also trying to bring along a few other fellow MP’s from the SLMC along with him. At the same time some representatives of a Muslim religious organization are trying to talk to Hakeem on behalf of Mahinda Rajapaksa and get the SLMC on board if possible.
As for the Tamil parties the solitary MP from the EPDP Douglas Devananda was one of the first to team up with Mahinda and has been given the same portfolio held by DM Swaminathan of the UNP earlier. The CWC with two MP’s is also in with Mahinda. CWC Leader Arumugan Thondaman has been entrusted with the same ministries that came under TPA leader P. Digamparam earlier. In an interesting move two MP’s from the Up Country Peoples Front V.Radhakrishnan and A. Aravindh Kumar have engaged in discussions with the Rajapaksas. The final outcome of the talks remain unknown. While Tamil Progressive Alliance leader Mano Ganesan has issued a statement to the effect that the Tamil and Muslim parties will be supportive of Ranil Wickremesinghe, it is learnt that at least one TPA MP from Kandy M. Velu Kumar is all set to cross over.
Finally we come to the two main opposition parties the Tamil National Alliance(TNA) and Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna(JVP). The JVP has been critical of both Ranil Wickremesinghe and Maithripala Sirisena. While there is no love lost between the JVP and UNP, the crimson comrades hate and perhaps fear the return of the Rajapaksas more.However it is too early to predict what the JVP will do. The JVP attended the meeting held by Speaker Karu Jayasuriya in a Parliament committee room where 118 MP’s signed a resolution condemning the unconstitutional appointment of purported prime minister Mahinda Rajapaksa. This was seen as support to the UNP. However the JVP Kalutara dist MP Dr. Nalinda Jayatissa told “The Island” that the party was remaining neutral in the UNP – SLFP power struggle.
The TNA with 16 MP’s may very well be the decisive factor in determining who commands majority support in Parliament. It may be recalled that the TNA played a crucial role in helping to defeat the no confidence motion against Ranil Wickremesinghe some months ago. Initially the TNA did not reveal its future course of action s. TNA leader Sampanthan, deputy leader Senathirajah and spokesperson Sumanthiran have been supportive of Ranil Wickremesinghe in the past and were likely to be so in the future too. When TNA leader Sampanthan met with Mahinda Rajapaksa at the latter’s invitation, the veteran Tamil leader remained non committal when asked for support.
Although the TNA played its cards close to its chest and planned to announce their decision only in the penultimate stage before voting, events began to overtake. While wooing the TNA as an entity , talks were also held on behalf of Maithripala and Mahinda with some TNA MP”s on an individual basis. The aim was to get a few to cross over failing which the goal was to get some TNA Parliamentarians to abstain from voting.It is learnt that discussions have taken place with Dharmalingam Siddharthan, Dr. S. Sivamohan, Charles Nirmalanathan , E. Saravanavan and Sivasakthy Anandan in Sri Lanka. All of them have been non – committal up to now
But the “upset” was caused by Batticaloa district MP Sathasivam Viyalendran who is one of the two PLOTE MP’s elected from the TNA. Viyalendran was in Canada when Sirisena appointed Mahinda as PM. Viyalendran was contacted by several people on behalf of Maithripala and Mahinda. These included ex-MP Jeyaratnan Sri Renga and Eastern Governor Bogollagama. An agreement was reached. While the TNA leadership thought Viyalendran was still in Canada, the MP returned quietly and was whisked off from Katunayake in a Govt vehicle to President Sirisena. Viyalendran was sworn in as Deputy minister of Regional Development.
This shocked the TNA leadership. Earlier some sections of the TNA had wanted the party to remain neutral in this power struggle, But after Viyalendran’s cross over the TNA closed ranks and decided to vote against Mahinda Rajapaksa when a no confidence motion was taken up. The TNA in a statement said Rajapaksa’s appointment as the Prime Minister was unconstitutional and illegal . “Remaining “neutral” in such a situation, would pave the way for achieving an undemocratic end by force,” it further said.The TNA also said disciplinary action would be taken against Viyalendran. However despite the TNA’s official decision it is still possible for a few individual MP’s to cross over. A Wanni district MP is supposedly next.
This then is the current state of affairs where all bets are off and everything is up for sale. Frantic efforts are being made by both sides to form the majority or obtain majority support in Parliament. The no holds barred great game of grabbing MP’s is on in Sri Lanka. It remains to be seen whether the Machiavellian machinations of the Maithripala -Mahinda duo will succeed or not.
DBS Jeyaraj can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org