By Siri Gamage –
Results from the No confidence vote in the parliament on April 4th 2018 show that the no confidence motion (NCM) against the Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe has been soundly defeated after a day of deliberations. 76 MPs voted for and 122 voted against. Prime Minister won the confidence of parliament by a majority of 46 votes. Contrary to reports that a group of UNP MPs will vote for the NCM, members of the UNP stuck together in the vote displaying party loyalty. Even Wijeyadasa Rajapakshe voted against the NCM. Minority parties except the JVP were firmly behind the PM. A section from the SLFP abstained.
Thus if the recent Local Government elections result was used by the Joint Opposition (JO) to show a popular growing trend among voters in the country toward its political platform, the country’s parliament has shown majority support for the PM and the United National Party that he leads. The two different results show a significant difference between the ground reality so far as the popular sentiment is concerned and the thinking among the legislators who were elected to parliament three years ago. No doubt in coming days and weeks this gap will necessitate the UNP and the minor parties supporting it to take measures including internal party reforms to address the evolving situation.
Results from the vote show that the majority of MPs in the parliament wishes to continue with the current government for the rest of its term with Mr Wickremesinghe at the helm. Though there were plenty of criticisms of the Prime Minister and his party policies including the recent budget prior to this vote, what this result does is to consolidate PM’s leadership. The PM is in a position to claim a mandate on his own to govern for the remaining term of government without being distracted by sideshows. How far he will use this mandate to carry on the promises made to people during the last national elections including chasing those who were corrupt during the former President Rajapaksa’s regime will be a litmus test. While the voting result consolidates the position of Wickremesinghe for the time being, it is not certain how far this will continue? Future support for him within the UNP and minority parties supporting him will depend on the steps his government takes to address the concerns among the UNP second tier leaders and minority parties with varying interests. For example, whether his government will accelerate the constitutional change process and further devolution, concrete reconciliation measures, measures to reduce the cost of living burdens can be crucial issues.
The voting outcome shows the extent to which the SLFP that the President Sirisena leads is split between those who supported the stance of the Joint Opposition and those who did not. Rather than showing internal divisions within the UNP, the fact that a group of SLFP MPs and ministers voted for the NCM submitted by the JO and another group abstained shows the internal divisions within the SLFP. It also shows where the loyalties of SLFP members of parliament lies. SLFP is not a united party today. Those who read between the lines had known all along that the SLFP has far more divisions compared to any divisions within the UNP. Both are in the national government yet after the results of Local Government elections in favour of the Joint Opposition, some SLFP ministers and MPs started to look to a future with the Joint Opposition and Podu Jana Peramuna (PJP) rather than sticking with the present national government. This trend has the potential to further undermine the authority and leadership of the President.
Whether the PM is able to get rid of SLFP ministers who voted for the NCM against him and install a cabinet of his liking for the rest of government’s term is a critical issue? Any such change requires the consent of the President. Theoretically at least, those ministers from the SLFP who voted against the PM have no moral right to remain in the cabinet. They should either resign or be removed. But such removal can only occur if the President agrees. Even if the PM and his party want such change, obtaining agreement from the President will not be an easy task. This shows the futility of continuing with the present arrangement for governance with a directly elected executive President and a Prime Minister elected through parliamentary elections. Sri Lanka has to choose between a Westminster style government with a President who has ceremonial functions only or a Presidential system where a directly elected President and his party rule the country. There are examples in Asia itself for the latter type but the dictatorial tendencies of such Presidents should counsel against such a move among those contemplating such a system.
The negotiations and horse trading occurred before the vote and media reports about which party or group of MPs will vote for which side shows how Sri Lanka’s polity is fragmented into smaller factions representing a range of interests including ethnic, religious and class. To garner a majority in the parliament, a leader has to negotiate with a multitude of smaller groups and factions. The vote of confidence in the PM shows that he enjoys the support among a multiethnic electorate whereas the vote for the Joint Opposition and its unofficial leader former President Rajapakse displays support from the Sinhala Buddhist community. This difference in voter bases and sources will be the deciding factor in future years/decades in Sri Lankan politics, especially during the forthcoming Presidential and Parliamentary elections scheduled in two years time.
Though Wickramasinghe won confidence of the large majority in the parliament and there is reason for his party to celebrate, this is no guarantee that this victory will ensure stable government for the rest of the term. Primarily this is due to the existence of two power centres under the existing system, lack of party reforms within the UNP, further agitations by the Joint Opposition, economic downturn, cost of living pressures and tax burdens on the people, and the need to satisfy diverse needs and demands of a multi ethnic constituency. Furthermore, governing on the basis of democratic principles and norms with free media etc. can become even harder if sectional demands cannot be reconciled and balanced with firm but fair decision-making. If Wickremesinghe is able to secure a cabinet of his choosing at least for the remainder of the government’s term in office, it will show his true colours in terms of whether he moves down from the Ivy League mentality and listen to the people more so than his close associates from the Royal College etc. A cosmopolitan government based on Sri Lankan national interest and a global orientation is desirable so long as the policies and programs implemented secure independence of the country and reduces dependence on everything foreign. The shockwaves sent through PM’s party’s spine as a result of no confidence proceedings would require him to reflect, rethink and revise his government’s economic and social policies. No doubt that the outcome of NCM vote weakens the hand of the President. This could be for better or worse for the UNP and the PM depending on how he decides to move forward rather than backward.
For the Joint Opposition and Sri Lanka Podu Jana Peramuna, the vote has shown the limits of their power in the present parliament. Though its spokesmen will try to depict this as a victory for the JO, the outcome is a considerable defeat for what it stands for. The crucial question is whether the JO can move forward by winning national elections in coming years with the same political platform that it presented to the voting public during the Local Government elections? The only hope for the JO and Sri Lanka Podu Jana Peramuna under the circumstances would be to rely on infighting and inefficiencies in the National Government and wait for more blunders to occur. An opposition party cannot come to power purely on the basis of criticising a government. It has to have clear policies and programs that address concerns of a multiethnic electorate. Furthermore, its economic policies need to be differentiated from the existing ones. The irony is that the neoliberal free market economic policies and practices are shared by all major parties except perhaps the JVP. The differences are only in rhetoric.