By Dayan Jayatilleka –
“You have sat too long for any good you have been doing lately. Depart, I say, and let us have done with you. In the name of God, go!” – Oliver Cromwell to the Long Parliament
Addressing the Government front bench in 1971 in the wake of the April Insurrection, with only a handful of MPs on his side, the Leader of the Ceylonese Opposition JR Jayewardene explicitly echoed Cromwell’s famous exhortation to the Long Parliament as it departed: “In the name of God, go!” Six years later, the electorate endorsed him. Today in 2018, the UNP, the Government and the Parliament should say the same to Prime Minister Wickremesinghe—the “Long Leader” of the UNP.
Mr. Wickremesinghe’s chosen appointee as Central Bank Governor has caused great damage and has now violated a court order. The PM has led his party to a drastic defeat yet again. He is known to be unviable as a Presidential candidate and a Presidential election looms 18 months hence.
He was the Minister of Law and Order and in the 1980s was very familiar, so to say, with the Police and the STF—and yet these institutions failed to crack down when the anti-Muslim riots broke out in Ampara and Kandy.
His removal as PM is necessary for credibility, stability, the end of the power struggle in Cabinet, and for crisis management as a whole. His removal as party leader is needed for the UNP to avoid dropping into the mid or low twenty percent range at any and all upcoming elections. He is, in short, a failure and a disaster all round. He must go or be made to. This is the background of the slow burning fuse that is the no-confidence motion.
Pro-Yahapalana ideologues and personalities, foreign and local, intervened in the post-Feb 10th crisis within the Government and “mediated informally” or held “informal negotiations” with the President, which averted the attempt to remove Prime Minister Wickremesinghe and prorogue Parliament. That was silly. What President Sirisena was attempting was the political equivalent of “keyhole surgery” which would have made a small incision and removed the offending PM, gangrenous due to the Bond scam, without however disturbing the coalition with the UNP or damaging the UNP. By dissuading him, the Yahapalana well-wishers, fans of the Ranil-Chandrika-Mangala troika, succeeded in driving the contradictions underground, where they are now encysted, turning malignant and metastasizing.
There is now a publicly visible and political active zone of dissent and disaffection within and between the government’s constituent parties. Today, the UNP has a web of cracks and a drop in morale, both of which are visible and audible on TV. There is a manifest loss of faith in the leadership of Ranil Wickremesinghe, with UNPers at all levels, starting with the Parliamentary group, increasingly unconvinced that he is more asset than liability at any future election.
If this weren’t enough, the SLFP is also undergoing differentiation, with most MPs dialoguing with the JO as the Provincial Council elections draw near, with some others wanting to remain within Government while intensifying resistance against the PM and a dwindling faction opting to collaborate with Ranil.
The no-confidence motion project would never have been conceived if not for the deferment of the President’s decapitation strike. Warding the President off, the Prime Minister and his fans such as Jayampathy Wickremaratne argued that the only way to get rid of him was a no-confidence motion. So, a no-confidence motion it became!
Whether or not the motion gains the relevant number of signatories and passes in Parliament is of secondary importance. What is important is that it will gravely weaken the PM just as the no confidence motion which JR Jayewardene as Leader of the Opposition (supported by the LSSP which had just left the coalition government) moved against Prime Minister Sirimavo Bandaranaike on the alleged irregularities in the valuation and disposal of her lands under the Land Reform act, was defeated in Parliament but led to the appellation of “Binduwathee” and damaged her irreparably with the General election 18 months away.
The JO and the SLFP or its majority faction, are on a path of gradual convergence in a common cause. This drawing together is the signal that the old anti-UNP center-left alliance is being recreated, in this first instance, as an action bloc, a grouping engaged in a united action on a single issue. This exploratory dialogue is a game changer. It means that common ground is being explored. The pontoon bridge is being slowly cobbled together, over which will pass the number of SLFP MPs who will deprive the Government of its two thirds majority, and more importantly, that percentage of the SLFP’s residual 13% votes needed for the JO-SLPP to top the 50% mark.
By helping keeping the lid on and the safety valves tightly shut, the pro-Yahapalana ‘crisis managers’ have helped the steam build-up and that steam is now threatening to blow the lid and the pot off the stove. At least in part, the recent riots were a manifestation and by product of this, just as July 1983 was in part, catalyzed by the postponement of the scheduled parliamentary election by means of a fraudulent and coercive Referendum held six months earlier, in December 1982.
At the time, Trotskyist leader Vikramabahu Karunaratne opined that the UNP’s IMF driven economic model was partly responsible for the social disaffection that took the distorted form of ethnic rioting. In a more nuanced analysis Dr. Newton Gunasinghe wrote in the Lanka Guardian on the nexus between the Open Economy and the riots, arguing that Sinhala businessmen, accustomed to protectionism, perceived themselves as relatively disadvantaged by the opening up of the economy to the free play of market forces, local and global, and that this factor fed into the ghastly riots.
In the run up to the most recent civic violence, instead of de-escalating the mounting political crisis and the crisis of social legitimacy (due to the Bond scam) by means of the removal of the PM, crisis management by external players has actually succeeded in escalating the internal political struggle and thereby the government’s crisis and the state’s paralysis.
In point of fact, the mediatory “informal conversations” should not have been with the President. They should have been with the Prime Minister, persuading him to leave quietly. Post bond-scam and the Feb 10th defeat, the PM is the problem, not the solution—but the pro-Yahapalana civil society intellectuals and the DPL community misperceive the President as a greater part of the problem than they do the PM. The reality however is that the PM is the problem while the President is part of the solution.
After the recent riots, can any rational person really think that things can go on without credibility being restored, and that credibility can be restored without any change in the Government’s profile; without a change of leading personalities until 2019-2020? The government must regain its legitimacy and capacity to function by selecting a new Prime Minister. Nothing short of that is substantive enough a change to stabilize a dangerous situation. There has to be a moderate nationalist personality from within this Government who has won sufficient confidence of the Sinhala Buddhist majority or can earn its trust, fronting as Prime Minister—or else the next crisis on the streets may destabilize the system as a whole.
In making the choice for change as between the President and the PM, the President cannot be made to go, short of an impeachment which won’t happen because the JO is not going to be seen to help decapitate an SLFP President and strengthen the sitting UNP PM. The President stays till late next year. If so, then who has to go? Obviously, the PM– and the ones who are removable, namely some of the current holders of the Ministries.
The pro-government ideologues are laying on a smokescreen about the so-called mandate of January 8th 2015 and the alleged reform agenda. They say that the mandate is intact and the reform agenda must be returned to with redoubled commitment. They seem unaware that politics is not quintessentially, about adhering to mandates and reform agendas. Politics is about power, interests, threats—and perceptions of interests and threats—and of course, survival. The President, the SLFP and quite a few UNP MPs are thinking in these terms, and understandably, even rightly, so.
Surely there can be no reasonable doubt that the UNP-SLFP alliance will not last till 2019-2020? It is not a question of whether it will end but when. The upcoming Provincial Council election will be a marker event. The President, the SLFP and the many in the UNP are wondering how they can face the Provincial Council elections with Ranil Wickremesinghe as PM and UNP leader. The UNP is nervous at the prospect of mounting a campaign and getting out its own voters.
Speaking of “reform agendas”, reform is good, yes? As a social democrat I’d say yes as a general rule and most of the time, but not always. Reform is good when it makes things better. It is bad if it makes things worse. It all depends on the results of reform. The nature of those results depend upon the content, direction and pace of reform.
The events since Feb 10th demonstrated that the 19th amendment requires rectification, because it has created a situation of deadlock, where an executive President elected by the majority of the people of this country taken as a whole, cannot remove a Prime Minister who has been elected from a much smaller area and with a far smaller vote.
The deadlock over the 19th amendment also showed the need NOT to tamper overmuch with the 13th amendment. What if we enhance devolution as the PM wants, and we wind up with a situation in which the President cannot remove not merely the PM but also the Chief Minister? Wigneswaran will be as difficult to remove as Ranil Wickremesinghe seems to be. Imagine being stuck with both, however badly they conduct themselves? What if we have a situation such as in 1990 but the Constitution as been so amended that we cannot remove the Northern Chief Minister or dissolve the Northern Provincial Council in the way that President Premadasa did then?
Can any sane person seriously think that a Government which has been rejected at a municipal election and is in bad shape internally, should really risk a referendum on a controversial new Constitution, with a little over 18 months to go before a decisive national election? Does anyone with a grain of good sense think that the UNP and SLFP are in any mood or shape to fight a referendum campaign against a JO-SLPP which has a vastly popular leader and no leadership crisis, on the move? Does any prudent individual think that new federalizing Constitution and a Referendum campaign–in which an army of monks and ex-military officers and men will be campaigners for a NO vote– will help rather than harm inter-communal reconciliation?