Two years and three months after the United National Party (UNP) and the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) formed the National Unity Government, doubts are being raised as to whether the two parties can continue to co-habitat for the duration of the present Parliament. The doubts have credence, for despite the President and the Prime Minister working with the mutual understanding of the importance of combining forces if they are to avoid a comeback of former president Mahinda Rajapaksa, relationship between the parliamentarians of the parties have been, to say the least, uncomfortable. Whether it is economic development plans, constitutional reforms or any other important policy initiative, both parties have demonstrated almost diametrically opposed view points in their approach to those issues.
The unprecedented coming together of the two main parties to form a government, for the first time in the country’s independent history, was initially hailed as a good opportunity to explore ways and means to find solutions to the main problems, including the ethnic problem, faced by the country in a conducive political situation. However, all too soon it began to appear as though politicians of both parties were trying a bizarre experiment on how best to put party politics in the forefront, while being partners of a government.
Not a single week has passed without MPs or ministers belong to either the UNP or the SLP holding press conferences to vehemently criticize one another on issues of governance and politics. In this context, controversies surrounding the Central Bank Bond scam have become a handy tool to the SLFP component in the government to browbeat the UNPers who are certainly in an unenviable situation. This no doubt is adding significant weight to intensifying the animosity between the two parties, hindering the proper functioning of the government.
As far as Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe is concerned, there is no challenge to his leadership within the Party at present, in contrast to how it was during the long years he was the Opposition Leader in Parliament. It is also in contrast to what’s happening in the SLFP camp, where President Maithripala Sirisena seems to be on somewhat shaky ground when it comes to the effective leadership of the Party.
Though Sirisena was able to secure the presidency of the SLFP immediately after winning the 2015 presidential election and assume office as the Executive President, he has not been able to perform any magic on his party and bring it under his full command. While a faction of the United People’s Freedom Alliance (UPFA) MPs mainly from the SLFP are in the National Unity Government, another section loyal to former president Rajapaksa are functioning under the ‘Joint Opposition’ banner, which unfortunately for the President, has more MPs than the UPFA.
The ‘Joint Opposition’ has been virulently opposing almost all the projects and policy initiatives of the government without proposing any clear alternatives. At the same time, politicians in the SLFP component of the government have been loath to go against Rajapaksa, believing that in the event of an election they would likely have to unite with or become an ally of the faction led by him.
It was worth remembering that during the 2015 parliamentary elections, the UPFA campaign was led by the former president regardless of the fact that officially Sirisena was the leader of both the SLFP and the Alliance.
Sirisena was rendered helpless and became a mere spectator during the hustings and issued statements to the effect that even if the UPFA won majority seats in Parliament he would not appoint the former president as the Prime Minister. There has never been an Executive President disgraced and side-lined by the party he or she led during a national elections, as Sirisena was.
Rajapaksa loyalists had already formed a new party called the Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP) under the chairmanship of former external affairs minister, Professor G. L. Peiris.
The main purpose of floating the party was to avoid any serious setbacks to the politicking of Rajapaksa loyalists in the event they were deprived of nominations in future elections by the leadership of the SLFP. The threat here was that if any SLFPer was denied nominations, he or she would contest as the candidates of the SLPP, which, a few days ago paid deposits to contest some local government bodies in the coming elections.
The ‘Joint Opposition’ is, no doubt, aggressively asserting and has gone even to the extent of imposing conditions and dictating terms to ensure the fissure between the two factions of the SLFP remains wide. They have demanded the Sirisena faction leave the National Unity Government if its members wanted to contest the upcoming local government elections under the SLFP banner. They have also demanded that the leadership of the SLFP be returned to Rajapaksa.
In political terms, the Sirisena faction has been rendered so weak that they are being compelled to take positions regarding all important issues in line with the thinking of the Joint Opposition. It can be said that many of the problems being faced by the government are due to the inability of President Sirisena to command his party with full authority.
In this context, an important question arises about the future of the Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) signed between UNP and SLFP after the 2015 August general elections. The MoU was for two years; and President Sirisena has said more than once that he would take a decision before December 31 on whether it should be extended.
Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe for his part has expressed his willingness to continue the co-habitation despite several irritants rubbing the partners wrong on many issues.
Though UNP ministers and MPs criticize the actions and approaches of the SLFPers, Wickremesinghe has never been publicly critical of the SLFPers. He has always portrayed himself as a person who is interested in maintaining a practical understanding with the President on the issues of governance. But no doubt he believes, politically, a divided SLFP would be advantageous to the future electoral prospects of his party.
Last week President Sirisena while addressing a public meeting outside Colombo severely criticized those who made allegations against him when he took the bold decision to thwart fraud and corruption. He went to the extent of threatening to give up all positions and join the people to take the fight forward.
In a speech openly aimed at UNPers perceived as being critical of him, he also said the SLFP candidate was defeated in 2015 because the SLFP government did several mistakes, and if people from the UNP did the same mistakes while being in the government, the people of the country would not approve it.
There was no immediate reaction from the UNPers to the presidential invective, but it is worth noting that the Prime Minister is reported to have instructed the UNP Members of Parliament to refrain from criticizing President Sirisena.
He had told the government’s parliamentary group that it was not an easy task for the two main political parties to work together and as such problems were bound to arise. So this brings one back to the original concern – can the uneasy co-existence between the two main political parties withstand the problems arising from within and outside?
(Veeragathy Thanabalasingham is the Consultant Editor of Express Newspapers Ltd)