Colombo, April 16: The Rajapaksa regime in Sri Lanka, extremely hard-pressed though it economically and politically, might still survive thanks to disunity among the Opposition parties and the massive infusion of financial and material aid to the country from abroad. The fact that the politically savvy Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa has come out of his shell and is fronting for the reclusive and apolitical President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, is also expected to buttress the government.
There are essentially six critical factors working in favor of the regime. The first factor is the Rajapaksas’ firm resolve to stay put in power so long as they have the backing of the constitution and the law. Their resolve is a major challenge to the Opposition which is chronically divided. President Gotabaya Rajapaksa has categorically told his detractors that he will not resign because he still has the mandate secured in the last elections and that he will not accept any corrective mechanism outside the framework of the constitution. This stance is fully backed by his elder brother, Prime Minister and political heavy weight, Mahinda Rajapaksa. The firmness of the Rajapaksas’ means that the Opposition will have to marshal all its resources and put the brothers on the mat if it is to dislodge them. But it appears that it is incapable of doing so.
The second factor is opposition disunity. Although after the defection of 42 MPs from the ruling coalition, the government had only one more than the required number to stay in power, it has survived because the opposition has multiple and clashing aims and is also lacking a single leader. In an act of bravado, the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna-led National People’s Power (NPP) rejected the President’s call to parties in parliament to accept cabinet portfolios in an all-party interim government. The JVP and NPP leader Anura Kumara Dissanayake said President Rajapaksa could not make such a suggestion when the people were demanding his exit at once and with one voice. The NPP/JVP MP, Vijitha Herath, said that the President should be “impeached”, which is a very complicated process.
MPs of the breakaway group of the ruling Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP), the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLPP) and the 11-party alliance, jointly wrote to the President asking him to appoint an all-party government, and also a “National Executive Council” functioning above the cabinet. They also demanded a repeal of the 20 th.Amendment, which gives the President gargantuan powers; and the re-enactment of the 19 th.Amendment which had given more powers to parliament. The main opposition party, Samagi Jana Balawegaya (SJB), started collecting signatures for a Motion of No Confidence against the government. The Tamil National Alliance demanded the abolition of the Executive Presidency. But the Tamil Progressive Alliance (TPA) said that this demand was too ambitious and opted for the restoration of the 19 th.Amendment instead. The United National Party (UNP) leader Ranil Wickremesinghe asked the President to resign making way for him to become a caretaker President till the next election.
The opposition parties were also divided on the question of seeking IMF help to resolve the economic crisis. The Lanka Sama Samaj Party (LSSP) and the JVP/NPP are against going to the IMF, while the SJB and the United National Party (UNP) were for it.
The third factor is the inability of the Leader of the Opposition, Sajith Permadasa, to reconcile these different demands. He is unable to present one list of demands and press the government to accept them making use of the government’s wafer thin majority in parliament. The opposition is amorphous and leaderless.
The fourth factor in favor of the government is the assumption of leadership by Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa, a past master in politics. He is filling the void created by Gotabaya Rajapaksa who has gone into a shell. Disregarding his poor health, Mahinda Rajapaksa left the backseat he had been occupying since 2019 end to engage with politicians and state the government’s case to the public. It was Mahinda Rajapaksa and not Gotabaya Rajapaksa who delivered an address to the nation over TV. In that, he showed empathy for the suffering public. But he also stated that the opposition had spurned his offer of positions in the government to jointly solve the country’s problems. He then justified the government’s decision to dig in and do its best to solve the problems on its own as mandated in the last elections.
The fifth factor is the amorphousness of the demonstrating citizens’ group demanding the President’s resignation. The demonstrators are basically apolitical middle and upper class youth. For them, protest is a part time activity. It is also a floating population, lacking an organizational structure and leadership. Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa has cleverly offered to talk to them, knowing full well that they are not in a position to talk with one voice, except to keep chanting “Gota Go Home”.
The sixth and the most critical factor is the help that the international community is giving to enable Sri Lanka to come out of the economic woods. Indian aid of US$ 2.5 billion to buy essential fuel, food and medicines, has been arriving, to the great relief of the government as well as the masses. India will help with ‘bridge financing’ to enable Sri Lanka before it gets the IMF facility.
China too has promised US$ 2.5 billion in loans and buyer’s credit. The modalities for the disbursal of these funds are being worked out. Both India and China have enormous geostrategic and economic stakes in Sri Lanka and political stability is a necessary condition for those interests to be realized.
The US is at a remove as compared to India and China, but it is vitally interested in roping Sri Lanka into the anti-China, Indo-Pacific grouping. To achieve this, Washington will need a friendly and stable government in Colombo. Washington has clout in the IMF and the World Bank, which Sri Lanka has decided to approach for funds. It is expected that the US will help Sri Lanka in this regard. The encouraging part is that the Rajapaksa government has shed its reserve about approaching the IMF and will be sending a team of distinguished neo-liberal economists to negotiate with international funding institutions. President Gotabaya Rajapaksa has also spoken to other countries like Japan and South Korea and these have promised help.
With the onset of seasonal rains, hydro-electric power generation is expected to increase giving relief from long-duration power cuts. On the agricultural front, the Prime Minister has withdrawn the policy of disallowing chemical fertilizers and has revived the fertilizer subsidy to infuse life into the dying agricultural sector.
With the government indicating its determination to stay put and the international community inclined to help the incumbent government, some of those who left it are believed to be thinking of trekking back. SLFP MP Shantha Bandara is already back and is a State Minister now. And fellow partyman, Ranjth Siyambalapitiya, has also come back as Deputy Speaker. More MPs are likely to come back to the Rajapaksa fold. It is therefore likely that the government of the Rajapaksas will stay put to steer the ship of State through the troubled economic waters.