While the complicated situation that has arisen in parliament today is unprecedented, the origins of this logjam could perhaps be traced back to the period when the yahapalana government was formed. The present instability could be seen as part of a continuum starting with the creation of a ‘National Government’ in January 2015 – a ‘forced marriage’ between two traditionally opposed groups from centre-left and centre-right of the political spectrum.
Till the UPFA quit the yahapalana government – ahead of the President’s sacking of Ranil Wickremesinghe from the job of Prime Minister on Oct. 26, – the UNP-ledcoalition largely depended on the UPFA members for the numbers in parliament. With the new government faced with the charge that it, in turn, lacks a majority, the UPFA has pointed out that Wickremesinghe’s party had only 41 MPs at the time he was appointed PM in 2015 while they had 162 in the 225-member parliament. Wickremesinghe’s appointment, based on a campaign pledge, was not the outcome of his party winning an election. Nor was he appointed on the basis of being the MP ‘most likely to command the confidence of parliament.’
With the UPFA quitting the coalition, the UNP is now at the mercy of smaller communally-oriented parties without whose support it cannot hope to survive politically. Already it is reported that the TNA and SLMC have pledged support to the UNP that is conditional on their demands being met. Although the total numbers on each side keep shifting daily, it appears the UNF coalition (which includes SLMC, ACMC and DPF members who contested on the UNP ticket) has in the region of 101 MPs while the UPFA claims a figure of around 103. The UNF’s ability to muster majorities in the rather strange voting sessions that took place in parliament on Thursday and Friday, which were boycotted by government members, has been entirely thanks to the support of the TNA and JVP.
These two groups of 14 and 6 respectively, have become the UNP’s props in many respects, but for how long, it is not clear. In reality there is a knife-edge balance between the two main political formations – the SLFP-led UPFA and the UNP-led UNF – and this can at any moment be upset with a few cross-overs purchased on the auction floor that we call parliament today. As the voting public can see, it is the most venal, unscrupulous, and untrustworthy of MPs whose hands are strengthened by this pathetic situation.
The manner in which the 19A was passed is yet another marker of the way in which instability got built into the yahapalana project. It may be recalled that Wickremesinghe at the time proposed changes that would have made the president subordinate to the PM. This outcome was averted by the Supreme Court ruling that said a referendum was required in order to approve sections relating the PM being designated as ‘Head of Cabinet,’ with powers to appoint ministers and assign their subjects and functions. (The UNF had said it would only go with changes that would not require a referendum). There was inadequate time for public discussion of the hurriedly passed Bill, with 12 pages of amendments reportedly submitted to the SC during the hearing, which the public had no opportunity to contest because they did not know what was in them.
Wickremesinghe’s attempts to amend the law so as to make the PM more powerful than the president via the 19A, might throw light on some of the complaints made about him by President Maithripala Sirisena in the wake of his sacking. At a forum with Colombo based foreign correspondents last Sunday (25) the President elaborated on the differences of opinion that surfaced within three weeks of the yahapalana govt. coming into office – starting with the appointment of a cabinet. He said the PM ignored the report of a committee of academics appointed by him to formulate a scientific basis for assigning portfolios. “I doubt he even turned the pages of the report” he remarked.
He went on to list numerous instances where he said the PM disregarded or sought to over-ride his views. The Central Bank and state banks were removed from the purview of the Finance Ministry and, for the first time, the prime minister took over the Central Bank. Sirisena said Ranil Wickremesinghe was determined to appoint Arjuna Mahendran as Governor of the Central Bank, although he opposed it saying the latter was not a Sri Lankan.
Within three months the first ‘looting’ of the Central Bank (mudal mankollaya) took place and not long after that there was another similar fraud. Wickremesinghe was not in the least concerned about the ‘biggest financial robbery,’ he alleged. Like the Central bank bond scam there were so many other cases of corruption he said, he could “write a book.”However, he felt at the time that he shouldn’t clash with Wickremesinghe because he ‘did a lot’ to make him president, he said.
Wickremesinghe’s ‘ultra-neoliberal policies’ destroyed the country, Sirisena alleged. The former kept trying to introduce two Land Bills, but he said he did not allow them. One related to land administration (Idam vidividaana panatha) that would have allowed foreigners to buy any land, both public and privately owned. The other related to setting up a Land Bank, which had similar objectives. “It was a very anti-national law” he said.
After the February 10, Local Government polls, Sirisena said he told Wickremesinghe the disastrous result was the outcome of his economic and political policies, and asked him to step down as PM, but he refused. He then asked Karu Jayasuriya and Sajith Premadasa in turn, but they were unwilling to go against their party leader. “So you see, I didn’t ‘suddenly’ remove Ranil Wickremesinghe and appoint Mahinda Rajapaksa” he asserted. The last straw was the unconcern shown by Wickremesinghe in relation to the plot to assassinate him, the President said. He asserted that all his moves – sacking the PM, appointing a new one, proroguing parliament, and dissolving parliament – were made legally, and only the dissolution has been challenged.
It was against this backdrop, the President categorically ruled out the possibility of re-appointing Wickremesinghe as PM. It would appear he is ready to appoint another candidate, and talks are said to be underway with a view to breaking the deadlock. Meanwhile, both sides are engaged in tactical manoeuvres in parliament.
Regardless of who the PM is, any government in the present circumstances is doomed to be highly unstable. But it will have to hobble along in this state until a general election is called – hopefully sooner rather than later – depending on the Supreme Court verdict on the dissolution of parliament.