(Excerpts From The “Sunday Times” Political Column of August 25th 2019)
President Maithripala Sirisena’s new move this week to swear-in United National Party (UNP) deputy leader Sajith Premadasa as Prime Minister and urge him to form a new Cabinet of Ministers did not materialise.
Set for last Friday so Premadasa could attend the rally in his support in the southern town of Matara that day, this was the part of a dialogue that went on between Sirisena and Premadasa, as revealed in these columns last week.
This is the second public event Premadasa is taking part in after the rally on August 12 in Badulla. This comes as divisions within the UNP exacerbated over his decision to contest the presidential election.
Unlike the so called ‘constitutional coup’ in October last year, President Sirisena’s latest attempt bore a more friendly face and at least kept to the contours of the Constitution.
He told an interlocutor, a senior member of the UNP supporting Premadasa, he would require a document signed by most MPs that they wanted the UNP deputy leader as Premier. That would mean 113 from a 225 seat Parliament. The Premadasa backers did try, talking even to those in the Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP) whether they would like to join a proposed “new government.”
However, those who were contacted were not in favour. Hence the move had to be abandoned. Added to that was a refusal by Premadasa himself who told his confidants that he feared the acceptance of a Premier’s post would only invite accusations of “betrayer” on him and drive more UNP supporters against him. He also feared that the exercise would be dubbed a “conspiracy.”
For President Sirisena, gifting Premadasa with the office of Prime Minister and thus ousting incumbent Ranil Wickremesinghe, would have brought some political mileage. He would then be credited as the man who drove a Premier out of office for a second time, installed another and thus divided the UNP in the middle. That glory was not to be.
At least Sirisena loyalists thought Premadasa would grab the offer since there was a plum — carrying out his campaign for this year’s presidential election as Prime Minister. That is with all the perks of office and greater mobility.
Other than the reason he outlined, Premadasa also was conscious that President Sirisena tried to trade the Premier’s post to now SLPP leader Mahinda Rajapaksa and the consequences that followed. That action, against Wickremesinghe, at least for months, unified the UNP. The UNP leader, however, failed to build on that opportunity despite repeated promises of party re-organisation.
Speculation about President Sirisena’s new gamble has been in the air for many weeks. However, it took more credence only after a dinner meeting President Sirisena had with Premadasa on Monday night. Though details of what they discussed are not known, some of the moves discussed emerged. Little by little, the UNP leadership became aware that another ouster move was afoot, this time with the support of a section of the UNP. It did ring alarm bells at ‘Temple Trees’, Premier Wickremesinghe’s official residence. So much so, he planned a counter strike to publicise the moves whilst debunking them.
Conducting a news conference from ‘Temple Trees’ were two of his staunch allies – parliamentarians Ashu Marasinghe and Palitha Range Bandara, one time anti-Wickremesinghe campaigner. This is what Marasinghe had to say: “We are getting reports that discussions are underway at nights with various groups to mount another “constitutional coup” like what happened last October and instal a new Government.
We would like to warn those people to desist from those activities immediately. We will all stand together to defeat such an attempt. We would like to remind those working on such things that there are enough MPs who have backbones and who will staunchly resist such attempts. Our belief is that if all 106 UNF MPs (the current strength in Parliament) stand together, it will not be difficult to defeat Gotabaya Rajapaksa.”
Those remarks only added to the rumour mill, this time with claims that a swearing-in of young ministers was due at 2 p.m. on Friday. There was no such thing. Yet, it shook the UNP leadership.
A review of this week’s political developments raises an important question – why President Sirisena was ready to offer UNP deputy leader Premadasa the post of Premier. The simple answer would be that he wanted to spite Wickremesinghe, now his archrival, by ousting him. Is that all? Or did he see the prospects of a role for him too, much against the wishes of those who back Premadasa? Many Wickremesinghe backers believe that there are intermediaries who are bringing the Sirisena-Premadasa combo to fruition to upstage Wickremesinghe for personal reasons.
This arises only because Sirisena is yet to take a categorical public position though behind-the-scenes, the parties whom he is interacting with have their own views based on what he tells them. They have so far not been complementary to one another. The only outcome known is that like the UNP, a grand old party, the SLFP, too is in a major crisis. How much more can President Sirisena hold on the SLFP as he plays hide and seek? It is almost on the brink of extinction. The political curtains will come down for him as President within the coming weeks than months.