By Rasika Jayakody –
It was not too long ago that President Maithripala Sirisena told the SLFP All Island Executive Committee that he had many “trump cards” up his sleeve. His statement grabbed headlines in the immediate aftermath of the appointment of purported Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa that was followed by the prorogation of Parliament.
In the days that followed, Sirisena appointed a number of Cabinet members to his purported government on a staggered basis and then dissolved Parliament, sharply contravening all constitutional barriers imposed by the 19th Amendment preventing such action by the Executive. He also attempted to engineer crossovers to solidify the position of Rajapaksa, but did not elicit a positive response from many of the UNPers he approached.
When the Supreme Court thwarted Sirisena’s first attempt to dissolve Parliament and hold snap elections, the President saw himself caught between a rock and a hard place. His chosen Prime Minister Rajapaksa, did not have the numbers to demonstrate a simple majority in Parliament, and suffered three humiliating defeats in the House – including two back to back no-confidence motions. As a result of this, the country is now saddled with a government lacking legitimacy and an obstinate President refusing to accept the will of the legislature.
President Maithripala Sirisena has now exhausted all his options – his “trump cards”, if you will. The UNP has stood its ground, throwing its full support behind party leader Ranil Wickremesinghe, and Sirisena’s attempts to appoint another UNP parliamentarian as PM through the ‘backdoor’ have proven futile. Even though Sirisena has categorically ruled out the possibility of Wickremesinghe being re-appointed Prime Minister, the President has little legal room to manoeuvre.
The current impasse is proving to be costly for former President Mahinda Rajapaksa and his camp, which had seemed well positioned to secure a comprehensive victory at the next Parliamentary election, before the outbreak of this political crisis. As a senior UPFA Parliamentarian Kumara Welgama, a long time ally of the former President, aptly explains, the appointment of Rajapaksa as Prime Minister without the support of Parliament has brought a curse upon their own political movement.
The statement issued by former President Rajapaksa, this last Sunday evening, is also a manifestation of his current plight. In an uncharacteristically defensive statement, Rajapaksa said the government he formed on October 26 was only an “interim” government and that he would need more time to form a stable one. It showed the former war-winning President, who was riding the crest of a populist wave before October 26, in a hapless position in which he is made to apologetically explain his actions to party supporters.
Moving forward, Parliament this week will vote on two motions, that will seek to cut off budgetary allocations to the Prime Minister’s Office and other ministries, held by members of the purported Cabinet. The two motions are likely to pass in Parliament with a clear majority, plunging Rajapaksa and his camp into deeper chaos. In the face of this humiliation in Parliament and imminent legal battles over the legitimacy of his government, Rajapaksa will come under intense pressure to step down from his portfolio and resort to urgent damage-control measures.
In the current context, President Sirisena’s last and only ‘trump card’ seems to be sowing discord within the UNP, attempting to pit Deputy Leader Sajith Premadasa against Wickremesinghe in a tussle for party leadership. It is clear that Sirisena’s anti-Wickremesinghe advisors and the media tycoons working hand-in-glove with him have launched a feverish campaign to discredit the party leadership from within the camp. Sadly, a section of hot-headed and impetuous UNP MPs have failed to comprehend the gravity of the current political crisis, and may even fall prey to Sirisena’s solipsistic plan.
At the heart of this struggle to restore Parliamentary democracy is the need to establish a pre-October 26 status quo and to force Sirisena to accept Wickremesinghe as the Prime Minister until the next Presidential election, which should precede the Parliamentary election. As I have pointed out in a previous article, all internal issues of the party should be resolved after Wickremesinghe’s reinstatement, and Sirisena, a man who has grossly and grotesquely violated the Constitution, should have no say in such matters.
All attempts to force leadership within the UNP at the moment give an undue advantage to President Sirisena who has come under increasing pressure, locally and internationally, to end his arbitrary, unconstitutional and undemocratic actions. At no point should the UNP act in a manner that condones and justifies Sirisena’s erratic behavior, which triggered a political crisis that has shattered the very foundations of Parliamentary democracy in Sri Lanka. This is exactly why the need to restore the ‘pre-October 26’ status quo, which includes the reinstatement of Wickremesinghe, is a non-negotiable component of the current struggle.
The challenge for the UNP, at this point, is to ensure that all its parliamentarians stay true to the core objectives of the pro-democratic struggle, despite their personal ambitions and desperation to oust Wickremesinghe from the helm of the party. The party should remain united in its demand for restoration of pre-October 26, 2018 and consider internal reforms within the UNP a matter of secondary importance. Should the UNP fail to understand its priorities at this point in time, the party will end up pandering to the ambitions of its main adversary – President Maithripala Sirisena.
*Rasika Jayakody is the former Editor of the Daily News and the former Editor-in-Chief of Asian Mirror. He may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org