By Rasika Jayakody –
If newspaper and online media reports this weekend are something to go by, President Maithripala Sirisena is toying with the idea of forming a Caretaker Government with his erstwhile arch-rival Mahinda Rajapaksa.
Several newspapers have reported of a meeting between Sirisena and Rajapaksa at the residence of former Minister S.B. Dissanayake, a member of the so-called ‘15 Group’ of the SLFP. Although the outcome of the discussion is still not clear, it can be assumed the discussion has laid the foundation for a continued dialogue over the proposal for a ‘Caretaker Government’.
The desired goal is not too hard to fathom. It envisions a temporary coalition between the SLFP and the Joint Opposition, booting the UNP and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe out of the government. The vote on Budget 2019 may be perceived as an opportune moment by Sirisena and Rajapaksa to try their luck.
An SLFP Parliamentarian in support of this initiative, in an interview with Asian Mirror, explained the end-objectives: “Former President Rajapaksa can be the Prime Minister under President Sirisena in the envisioned Caretaker Government. The same arrangement can continue after the next Presidential election; Rajapaksa can support President Sirisena at the Presidential election and the President will support Rajapaksa at the Parliamentary election. The President has already made it clear that under the 19th Amendment to the Constitution the Prime Minister is the central figure in the government. Therefore, the former President will receive his due place in a future government,” he said.
President Sirisena’s attempt to form a Caretaker Government with the Joint Opposition is in the wake of a botched plan to present himself as the Common Candidate of the UNP-led coalition in 2020. The UNP reportedly informed the President in no uncertain terms that the party does not intend to field a Common Candidate at the next Presidential election. It was after this that the President turned to the Joint Opposition with a fresh pitch to preserve his ambitions.
What remains clear, is that the attempt to form a proposed Caretaker Government, if successful, will only exacerbate the current political crisis and looming uncertainty over the economy. It will plunge the country into a chaotic and turbulent political weather at least until the next Presidential election, worsening the prevailing foreign exchange issue and driving away potential investors. That said, it is important to examine if the formation of a Caretaker Government between the SLFP and the Joint Opposition is feasible.
The last effort the SLFP and the Joint Opposition undertook together was the no-confidence motion against Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe, in April, this year. The attempt boomeranged on those who initiated and supported it when, in a dramatic turn of events, a large number of SLFP MPs abstained from voting and the motion was defeated in the House with a resounding majority.
This allowed Prime Minister Wickremesinghe to reaffirm his authority in Parliament with 122 votes despite a shocking defeat at the Local Government election in February. Instead of expelling him from the government, the JO’s no-confidence motion gave Wickremesinghe a new lease of life, leaving the SLFP badly hurt and in shambles. The SLFP MPs who supported the no-confidence motion left the government and form a separate group while Sirisena was forced to go back to the drawing board. The Joint Opposition attributed the defeat of the no-confidence motion to the SLFP, as the party failed to throw their full weight behind the initiative and deliver the promised numbers.
This proposed Caretaker Government is the second ‘Joint Venture’ by the SLFP and the Joint Opposition to oust the Prime Minister. The problem, however, is that the SLFP and the Joint Opposition do not yet wield a majority in the House – which is a prerequisite to topple the UNP-led government and oust the Prime Minister. Alternatively, they need the support of the JVP and at least a group of 10 UNP Parliamentarians bold enough to defect from the party and align themselves with the SLFP-JO coalition
The sharp political differences between the two groups make it unrealistic to expect the JVP’s support for a Caretaker Government, and apart from Athuraliye Rathana Thera, a national list Parliamentarian, none of the UNP MPs seem ready to break away from the party and declare war on their leader, the Prime Minister. Even those who took swipes at the Prime Minister before the no-confidence motion was introduced, meekly supported him at the final vote, leaving the originators and the supporters of the initiative in the lurch.
The most important question to be asked is whether the Joint Opposition or its proxy party, the Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna, has a genuine need to form an alliance with President Sirisena by creating a Caretaker Government. As the President himself has admitted, his popularity has seen a sharp decline, manifested in the result obtained by the party at the last Local Government election. The party’s position has weakened further after the election and the SLFP has quite literally been reduced to a minor party when compared with the UNP and the Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna.
The Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna, led by the Rajapaksas, is a formidable group, in position to pull off a victory at the next Presidential election and form a government on its own. The foreign exchange crisis and fuel price hike is expected to continue at least until mid-next year and that will only bolster the chances of the Rajapaksa group winning. By entering into a Caretaker Government with Sirisena, the SLPP may expose their campaign to unwanted risk and injure their chances at the next election. Aside from a declining positional power as the President, a weakened, shattered party and the baggage of a failed administration, there is very little that Sirisena brings to the table.
Rajapaksa – an astute politician with an uncanny ability to tell which way the wind is blowing – may have already calculated the pros and cons of forming a temporary Caretaker Government just a year before an important national election. It is likely, therefore, the former President will tread cautiously on the matter, and in all probability, he will ask Sirisena to proceed with his ‘Caretaker Government’ plan alone, only offering support, without taking up any official responsibilities or ministerial portfolios. A loose commitment of that nature will only lead President Sirisena further into his precarious position, weakening his position within the unity government.
What is clear to me, from an objective, vantage point, is that whoever advised President Sirisena to move on the ‘Caretaker Government’ proposal is taking him for a ride. It is something the President must wake up to. Unless he takes a U-turn and resorts to a fresh plan of survival, this ill-advised attempt at establishing a Caretaker Government with Joint Opposition will only be a painful reminder of the bitter lessons learned during the no-confidence saga.
*Rasika Jayakody is the former Editor of the Daily News and Asian Mirror