By Dayan Jayatilleka –
The Prime Minister is facing two motions of no-confidence, not just the one. One is formal the other informal but no less real. Each one deals with one of the two aspects that go to constitute the PM’s public life. The two motions of no-confidence, the first de jure and the second de facto, are the motion that will manifest itself in Parliament, and the other, the mounting and increasingly public dissent within the UNP, which is rising up from below.
The no-confidence motion pertains to Mr. Wickremesinghe’s conduct in Government. Whether or not it secures the requisite numbers, the very move means that his Prime Ministership is leaking lifeblood because the signatories and probable voters, include members of his Cabinet. To be sure these are members of his coalition partner the SLFP. But that’s cold comfort.
If the members of your cabinet bring a vote of no-confidence against you – which they are doing fairly openly—then how do you continue to function in that cabinet and how does that cabinet continue to function?
If your coalition partner gathers signatures for a vote of no confidence against you, how can that coalition continue to function?
If the party that is led by the Executive president, the Head of state and government is rebelling against you, the Prime Minister, how can that administration continue?
And if all these do continue despite the motion of no–confidence and with a national election looming late next year, how can the country continue to be governed, the state apparatus continue to function?
How will the economy perform with the obvious and inevitable negative impact on investor confidence?
Running alongside all of this is the crisis within the UNP, the main party of the governing coalition. The coverage started with one TV station but now it has spread to all the private stations. Every evening on the TV news, some group of UNP members or the other, in some part of the country or the other, call for the replacement of Mr. Wickremesinghe as party leader. The message goes directly into the drawing rooms across the nation: “he’s been party leader for almost 25 years and we just cannot sell him as leader in our villages!”
While the UNP parliamentarians seem willing for the most part, to settle for Mr. Wickremesinghe remaining as leader albeit with—and on condition of—a drastic and immediate devolution of power within the party to younger, more popular figures, the party activists and elected representatives at the grassroots have organized themselves and are demanding new leader before the next round of elections. As one of them rang the alarm loudly at a media briefing: “thava thiyenne avuruddai maasa atai!” (“We have just another year and eight months to go!”) The grassroots activists and elected representatives have their finger on the pulse.
So, Mr. Wickremesinghe is facing rebellion and rejection on both fronts—the government and the party. Make that three fronts: the Parliament, the Cabinet and the UNP. No leader can face such combined rejection and continue his political career as a leader. Mr. Wickremesinghe’s leadership may not end in weeks or months, but it is certainly over. He is bleeding out from death by a thousand cuts, many of them self-inflicted. The only question is whether he will go now, or continue to inflict discredit and damage on his government and his party, not to mention the country and the economy, before he is unceremoniously cast out at the end of this government’s disastrously dysfunctional term.
Right now Mr. Wickremesinghe is trying to survive by playing one rebellion off against the other and splitting them from within. He may achieve some modest tactical success but he cannot prevail. What he is trying to do is play off the inner-party dissent against the governmental and parliamentary dissent.
The UNP wants a change in the party but it is less committed to a change of Prime Minister. The UNP seems to be saying that it want to save its electoral viability as a party, but is willing to keep Ranil on as Prime Minister for the next two years. The Parliament and especially the SLFP seems to be saying that it does not really care what the UNP does within—and the worst nightmare of some in the Pohottuwa is that the UNP will replace Ranil as leader and select someone less chronically unelectable—but that neither the SLFP nor the JO are willing to accept him as the Prime Minister and work with/under him.
The Pohottuwa is devoted to him as an electoral foe but what drives it up the wall is his policy direction because it drives its larger constituency up the wall. The SLFP’s problem is that association with him is killing it as a party and their individual electoral futures as well.
The SLFPers simply cannot stay with him as PM and aspire to win their areas at any future election. They would rather leave the Government and take their seats in the opposition, not least because both the SLFP and the JO know that even if Ranil survives the no-confidence motion with the support of the TNA and Chandrika (i.e. her ‘groupuscule’ of SLFP MPs), that is a lingering kiss of death for the government from here on in. No Southern Opposition could conceivably hope to have a better target than Ranil plus the TNA.
Ranil hopes that the contending or at least asymmetric motivation, aims and objectives of the foes within and without; the UNP dissidents and the JO-SLFP opponents, can be manipulated to crash into each other like dodgem cars, or at the least, retard the velocity of these twin moves against him. He must further hope that the Japanese would have put in a word for him with President Sirisena and that the perennially contending aspirations of the Sajith Premadasa and Navin Dissanayake factions will deadlock the dissent within.
Going by the report in the Deshaya (of the Times Group) Mr. Wickremesinghe’s final card seems to be to move an amendment to the Constitution to abolish the executive presidency and to count on the JO to support him. From other reports it would appear that the JVP is the stalking-horse for this move.
Even if all these tactical moves work, the enterprise fails because he cannot prevail. This is because he has two affliction both of which are fatal. One is a terminal crisis of legitimacy. He brought in an old crony from his days as PM in 2001, and made him the head of the central bank despite his non-citizenship, his conflict of interest and the advice of the President. It was on the PM’s watch as Finance Minister and that of his appointee as Governor of the Central Bank, that a globally unprecedented scam was perpetrated. That ex-governor is now a wanted man and is absconding. Again unprecedented in the world, the Prime Minister who inducted him, appointed him, defended him (even when the President tried to remove him) and suggested the change in the method of auction, has got off with no consequence.
This damage to the Prime Minister’s credibility and legitimacy will never go away and increases with each passing day. It will become a hemorrhaging wound once the no confidence motion is debated, whichever way the vote goes. All those in the UNP and CBK faction of the SLFP who defend him, will be seen by the public and placed on the record as those who defended the morally indefensible. This is a politically and socially fatal wound.
The second fatal wound is his indubitable unpopularity at the electoral level. Indubitable because it is being said by the UNP itself. Not only is it indubitable it is also growing. Nothing can be done about this short of his removal because Mr. Wickremesinghe is what he is, both in terms of policy and personality. He failed to be elected President in 1999 and 2005 and his earlier term as elected PM ended in dismissal followed by electoral defeat. He has almost reached the end of the road as UNP leader. All that left is to figure just how much road is left. He has also reached the end of the road as PM. Again, all that remains is to see how many months or weeks he has left. If he stays till 2020 or tries to, governmental and state paralysis will set in, the economy will go into a downward spiral, and anarchy will arise. And nope, the military will not support Fonseka (who scored a grand total of 30,000 votes), and a second Presidential bid by him will be nothing more than a farce.
The no-confidence motion, accompanied or followed by Mr. Wickremesinghe’s replacement as party leader, is the only way to save the country the growing cost of the toxicity.