After an uphill battle by the people,who are not necessarily the fans of the United National Party, a good deal of activism by the civil society, lawyers and online chatter; and finally an unanimous Supreme Court verdict that ruled the dissolution of Parliament as illegal and ultra-vires, Ranil Wickremesinghe was sworn in as the prime- minister on Sunday.
Now the state media believes that the people of this country owe him for being the prime minister. “The people who cherish democracy owe an eternal debt to PM Ranil Wickremesinghe, who was sworn in last morning as the Prime Minister of Sri Lanka, for walking the gauntlet all the way in achieving for them this victory,” a front line newspaper clamoured in a front page editorial. That is the sycophancy of the highest order. And cutouts of Mr. Wickremesinghe have been put up outside many state institutions.
There is a good deal of probability that the UNP and Ranil would squander the political capital that it accumulated over the past 50 days, say probably, within the next 50 days. The sudden change of fortune of the UNP had nothing to do with its acumen and hard work. Leading up to President Sirisena’s sacking of the government on October 26, the UNP was so unpopular- and it knew that- that it had been shying away from provincial council elections- which have been postponed, under the pretext of delay in delimitating electoral wards.
However, the President, coherence of whose policies in political judgments are receding the day by the day, decided to hit his own goal. An impatient Mahinda Rajapaksa, who is reportedly worried about the upcoming court cases against his family- many of his cases would go to trial in the first Q of 2019 – momentarily lost his political machiavellism. Premier Wickremesinghe won without doing anything. Now, the UNPers and many others would expect him not to blow away that political capital. Here are a few ways how he would probably do exactly that.
A farcical ‘national govt.
The UNP is now considering to form a ‘national’ government. President Sirisena has ruled against a formal agreement with the UNP. Hence, the new ‘national’ government would likely to be between the UNP and SLMC, which has only one MP, Ali Zahir Mowlana, who contested separately on the SLMC ticket in the East. Other SLMC MPs are elected on the UNP ticket. The objective of the national government is to exploit a constitutional provision (enabled by the 19A) which provides an exception to the limit on Cabinet of Ministers to 30. It allows the Parliament to decide the number of Cabinet ministers, when there is a national government in power.
Article 46. (1) of the constitution states that the total number of – (a) Ministers of the Cabinet of Ministers shall not exceed thirty; and (b) Ministers who are not members of the Cabinet of Ministers and Deputy Ministers shall not, in the aggregate, exceed forty.
The exception is laid out in Article 46 ( 4) which states Notwithstanding anything contained in paragraph (1) of this Article, where the recognized political party or the independent group which obtains highest number of seats in Parliament forms a National Government, the number of Ministers in the Cabinet of Ministers, the number of Ministers who are not Cabinet of Ministers and the number of Deputy Ministers shall be determined by Parliament.
Thus a national government with the one SLMC MP would allow the UNP to disregard the constitutional limit on the number of Cabinet portfolios, and rewards, 20 plus SLFP MPs and six UNP pole vaulters, who now want to support the UNP. Since such support is not extended on the basis of principles, they need to be rewarded with plum cabinet portfolios. This is the cynical logic of the UNP’s proposed national government.
That is JR Jayawardene style of cruel exploitation of constitution to advance petty personal and political aims. Such strategies have backfired, and the UNP which is functioning on a borrowed political capital does not have the luxury that JR had.
Return of Ranil’s coterie of stooges
Mr. Wickremesinghe’s habit of running the party and the country with a small group of his coterie is despised within the party itself. More alarmingly, serious allegations of corruption were made regarding the exclusive handling of economic policy and Foreign Direct Investment projects. These allegations need to be investigated under any future government or by a presidential commission for they are grotesque and high profile.
Then there is PM Wickrmesinghe’s favourites who are generally assigned to key responsibilities that they are shown to be incompetent of handling. That comes at the expense of the country, the party, and the competent MPs of the UNP, most of whom are disgruntled. Their disgruntlement, temporarily overshadowed by the momentary party unity against the constitutional coup would soon resurface. Premier Wickremesinghe would be doing a favour to the UNP and the country, if he limits his favoritism to where it ought to be.
Appointing Ravi K. as a Cabinet Minister
Ravi Karunanayake is a competent political manager. But he is tainted with jaw dropping allegations in the bond scam. He is also a key member of Premier Wickremesinghe’s inner circle just like Arjuna Mahendran had been until he took the flight.
Mr. Karunanayake is strongly considered for the minister of finance. (The president could very well appoint him and have the last laugh). However, that would be the beginning of the UNP’s undoing . It can happen very soon and very rapidly.
Ravi Karunanayake could well win the next Parliamentary election with 200,000 votes from Colombo, primarily from its electoral heartland of Ghettoed Central Colombo and Kolonnawa etc. However, two million undecided voters, or probably more, would be less inclined to support a government or vote for a party that has Mr. Karunanayake as a minister.
The UNP should also take note of the unfolding changes of demography of its electorate. It was the party that introduced and heavily relied on ‘rent a crowd’ protesters of ‘bath packet’ and the bottle of attack. It was also the party that in the most cynical manner mobilized the economic disadvantaged of the Colombo slums for its election campaign.
However, much of that has changed. Some of that electorate are now better economically positioned and less dependent, others have switched side to the SLPP, on the back of Duminda Silva, Mervin Silva at al. The UNP is not winning back that group. Instead, it can lose a good deal of undecided voters of progressive middle class,youth and millenials.
Premier Wickremesinghe should manage to build on the current political capital. But if he squander this opportunity, that should not also be a surprise.