Colombo, November 6: The Sri Lankan political situation is currently in a kind of mess not seen in recent times. President Maithripala Sirisena, who is the Executive head of the country, is at loggerheads with the Speaker, Karu Jayasuriya.
The conflict between the two high constitutional functionaries may lead to an ugly brawl in parliament when it meets on November 14. And if the fracas goes beyond limits, it could result in a complete constitutional breakdown.
The ousted Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe is brazenly defying the newly appointed Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa, even refusing to vacate his official residence “Temple Trees” though he was sacked on October 26.
President Sirisena says that his differences with Wickremesinghe are so deep and pronounced that if the latter defeats Rajapaksa in the No Trust Vote in parliament and has to be sworn in as Prime Minister he will quit the Presidency within hour.
Dissolving parliament and ordering fresh elections is one way out of the conundrum. But parliament cannot be dissolved now except through a resolution passed by two thirds of the membership of the House.
However, dissolution will be the last option to be exercised. It is generally not favored by Members of Parliament (MPs). They would lose their pension if parliament does not complete its five year term.
If parliament cannot be dissolved, what is the way out?
There are straws in the wind which suggest that behind the hyperbolic and high voltage rhetoric from both sides of the political divide, there are tentative moves from both sides to form a national government comprising the United Peoples’ Freedom Alliance (UPFA) led by President Sirisena and Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa, and a section of the opposition United National Front (UNF).
Perhaps it was the fear of dissolution which made UNF stalwarts Champika Ranawaka, Kabir Hasim and Rajitha Senaratne to publicly propose, as early as October 31, that a national government be formed again.
But the trio’s appeal fell on deaf ears at that time. President Sirisena and the newly appointed Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa, were confident that they will get overwhelming support in parliament to run the government till elections come in mid- 2020.
However to their dismay, the UNF stood together. The expected mass defection did not take place. Poaching of UNF MPs has clearly been a hard task, despite the large amount of time given by the President by proroguing parliament from October 27 to November 15.
There is still intense distaste in the UNF over President Sirisena’s use of Machiavellian subterfuge to sack its leader and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe and his Council of Ministers and appoint Rajapaksa as Prime Minister on October 26.
The ruling Sirisena-Rajapaksa group claims that it already has “around” 113 MPs (the number required to form a government and defeat a vote of no confidence in the House with a total membership of 225). But there is no certainty about such support.
As on November 6, the Sirisena-Rajapaksa group needs nine more to get 113 to remain in the government, and the UNF-Tamil National Alliance combine has 114.
The Sirisena-Rajapaksa group is hoping that it will be able to get more MPs by the time parliament resumes on November 14. But loyalties are extremely fragile in Sri Lankan politics. Vadivel Suresh crossed over from UNP to UPFA on day one; went back to UNP on day two; and on the third day, went back to the UPFA to be sworn-in as State Minister.
MPs may change sides even after being sworn-in as ministers. Manusha Nanayakkara shifted from UPFA to the UNF after taking oath as a Deputy Minister.
Even if the Rajapaksa government is defeated on the motion of no confidence, and Wickremesinghe stakes a claim to the Premiership again, the President may not agree to re-appoint him. The constitution allows the President to choose any MP who, in his opinion, is likely to command the confidence of the House.
Sirisena has already publicly stated that if Wickremesinghe becomes Prime Minister again, he will “quit the Presidency within an hour”. Therefore the appointment of Wickremesinghe appears to be out of the question.
It is to prevent these that the President is now reaching out to the United National Party (UNP)-led UNF, albeit in a subtle way.
At the public meeting held in Colombo on Monday, Sirisena invited UNF MPs to support Prime Minister Rajapaksa. He assured that they need not be worried about their future.
Earlier, at a public function, he had praised the contribution of UNP leaders of the past such as D.S.Senanayake, Dudley Senanayake and R.Premadasa, while lambasting the present leaders (Wickremesinghe and his cohorts).
Sirisena portrayed the UNP of the past as a nationalist and pro-people party in contrast to the present UNP which he dubbed as an anti-people organization working with an agenda set by foreign (Western) powers.
Dark Horse Sajith Premadasa
Sirisena’s mentioning President Premadasa was partly motivated by a desire to get Premadasa’s son, Sajith Premadasa, to cross over.
In Monday’s speech Sirisena also revealed that he thought highly of UNP members Sajith Premadasa and parliament Speaker Karu Jayasuriya. The President said that he had in fact offered the Premiership to Karu Jayasuriya first, when his party men were demanding the dismissal of Wickremesinghe. But Jayasuriya declined the offer.
The offer was then made to Sajith Premadasa, but he too declined. It was only thereafter that he invited Mahinda Rajapaksa, Sirisena said.
The public narration of this part of recent history indicated that Sirisena could function with Jayasuriya and Sajith, something he would not be able to do if Wickremesinghe were Prime Minister.
As part of the strategy to consolidate the regime, a proposal to form a national government composed of several parties may be made and propagated.
But this national government will have no truck with Wickremesinghe and his loyalists, given President Sirisena’s openly declared incompatibility with them.
This may lead to a split in the UNP, with an anti-Wickremesinghe group joining the government. Bulk of the UNF MPs may also pledge support to the national government, because the alternative, which is the dissolution of parliament, is undesirable.