Colombo, February 28 (The Citizen): Political instability continues to plague the Sri Lankan National Unity Government, despite vigorous efforts by President Maithripala Sirisena and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe to patch up the differences and continue the “Good Governance” regime till the next parliamentary elections in August 2020.
In addition to inter-party differences (between Sirisena’s Sri Lanka Freedom Party and Wickremesinghe’s United National Party) there are equally strong intra-party differences.
The SLFP is divided into two groups, one loyal to President Sirisena and the other loyal to former President and former SLFP chief, Mahinda Rajapaksa, who is now leader of the Joint Opposition Group in parliament and the de facto head of a new party, the Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP).
Having done extraordinarily well in the February 10 local bodies elections, which turned out to be a referendum on the performance of the National Unity Government, the SLPP has been attracting SLFP rank and file and middle order leaders who want to climb on to the Rajapaksa bandwagon.
These leaders and workers have been pressing President Sirisena to allow the SLFP to team up with the SLPP as after all the SLPP is only an offshoot of the SLFP and Rajapaksa had been a leader of the SLFP till January 2015.
But Sirisena would have none of it as he had broken away from Rajapaksa with some followers in 2014 and contested the January 8, 2015 Presidential election as the candidate of the Joint Opposition led by the UNP. He won the election beating Rajapaksa. Since then the two have been irreconcilable.
The poor performance of the SLFP in the February 10 election has been a powerful motivation for SLFP cadres to push for unity with the SLPP. While the SLPP became the single largest party in 239 out of the 340 local councils which went for the polls, the SLFP was on top in only 10 councils.
But if the SLFP was to leave the coalition, it would have to join SLFP and that as junior partner with Sirisena working virtually under the tutelage of Rajapaksa – a distasteful prospect for President Sirisena. Hence Srisena rejected it and proposed that the alliance with the UNP could continue with Wickremesinghe replaced by Speaker Karu Jayasuriya ,a non controversial UNP leader. But this proposal had to be dropped no sooner than it was made.
The UNP too did very badly, becoming the single largest party in only 41 out of the 340 councils. The dismal performance of the party led to two conflicts: one inter-party and the other intra-party.
With the nationalist, Left of Center and populist SLPP sweeping the polls, the UNP’s younger cadres wanted their party too adopt a similar policy. But the leader ,Wickremesinghe and his cohorts, are dyed in the wool neo-liberals ,pro-West and Right of Center. The UNP cadres demanded that Wickremesinghe step down and make away for a leader with a different policy and appeal. But they could not succeed because there was no leader with wide support. The UNP had no successor to Wickremesinghe as every other top functionary had only sectional and limited appeal.
And the UNP had to close its ranks in order to face the onslaught from the SLFP and its leader, the President of Sri Lanka, Sirisena. The SLFP blamed the UNP for its defeat saying that the UNP had totally mismanaged the economic ministries and the Foreign Ministry which it controlled as per a understanding reached in 2015.
When Sirisena proposed that Speaker Karu Jayasuriya be Premier, the UNP cadres rejected it as he could become a puppet of Sirisena’s. They felt it would be better to stand by Wickremesinghe. The SLFP then pushed for the candidacy of senior SLFP leader Nimal Sripala de Silva. But this did not find favor with the UNP.
The SLFP then wanted the President to sack Wickremesinghe..But it was pointed out that under the 19 th.Constitutional Amendment of 2015, the President cannot dismiss a Prime Minister unless he loses the confidence of the House in voting on a money bill.
Sirisena then talked his party men into accepting the continuation of the alliance with Wickremesinghe as Prime Minister till the next parliamentary elections in August 2020.
But to safeguard the SLFP’s political interest, he promised to get a great say in the running of the economy and foreign policy. He dropped the plan to give 70,000 tablets to rural schools and lifted the ban on the weedicide glyphosate. He also raised the price of imported potatoes. He said that his National Economic Council will give the government its basic economic policy and make course corrections.
But problems remain. The promised shuffle of UNP ministers amounted to nothing. The promised new blood was conspicuous by its absence when the team was announced on Sunday.
Frustrated by this and other issues, the State Minister of Irrigation, Palitha Range Bandara, openly announced on Monday that if Wickremesinghe does not bring the changes in the party structure and policies within a reasonable time period, he along with other UNP MPs, would move a Motion of No Confidence against Wickremesinghe.
Meanwhile, the leader of the SLFP, President Sirisena, said that he would need two week’s time to reshuffle SLFP ministers, thus hinting that it will be very delicate task.
(The featured image at the top shows President Maithripala Sirisena and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe in consultation)