By Jehan Perera –
The defeat of the no confidence motion against Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe by the relatively large margin of 122-76 votes in Parliament has renewed the fortunes of an ebbing government. Just a fortnight ago it was reeling under the twin impacts of the loss suffered at the local government elections held in February and its inability to nip the anti-Muslim riots the following month in Kandy in the bud. There was concern that the government had been rendered ineffective due to its internal divisions and was adrift in the ocean of politics without a sense of direction. However, by prevailing at the no confidence motion with a comfortable majority, the government has renewed the impression that the coalition of political forces that brought it to power in 2015 is still intact.
Once again, as in 2015, the no confidence motion brought the ethnic minority parties together to join forces with those in the ethnic majority community who did not want a repeat of the old regime and the politics of impunity it epitomized in the areas of human rights and financial corruption. It has revived the hope among those voted for a change in 2015 that the reform agenda may still be implemented three years later. So far the government has delivered on only one of its major promises of relevance to the voting public. It ended the fear of government and its unaccountable mechanisms of repression that operated beyond the limits of the law and civilized governance. It has yet to deliver on the others, such as economic development, anti corruption and a solution to the ethnic conflict.
The government’s ability to muster the votes of 122 parliamentarians to defeat the no confidence motion against the prime minister holds out the hope that a 2/3 majority is still within reach to carry out fundamental reforms of the polity as promised in 2015. An issue that is presently before parliament is the amendment of the Judicature Act that would establish high courts that could take on corruption cases on a continuous basis instead of being subjected to delays that are part and parcel of the ordinary course of law. The other would be that of finding a political solution to the ethnic conflict that has dogged the country from the time of its Independence.
The need for a 2/3 majority is especially necessary to resolve the ethnic conflict due to the need for constitutional change to ensure a greater degree of devolution of power even within the existing structure of the unitary state. This is a most sensitive and controversial issue that requires a bipartisan approach to the extent possible to ensure its long term viability. Governance in Sri Lanka has been plagued by successor governments undoing the policies and institutions put in place by predecessor governments. This threat looms even at present time. The opposition has said that they will undo some of the policies and institutions put in place by the present government. In particular they have specified the UN Human Rights Council resolution of 2015 that the government co-signed and the Office of Missing Persons that has been set up in terms of the pledges made at the time of its signing.
The maximum level of bipartisanship has been afforded since 2015 when the UNP and SLFP entered into a Government of National Unity along with the participation of most of the ethnic minority parties and the implicit participation of the largest Tamil party, the TNA. This is the alliance that needs to be held together and built upon. It is in this context that the decision of Prime Minister Wickremesinghe to instruct his party members to withdraw the no confidence motion against the 6 SLFP cabinet ministers of the government who voted in favour of the no confidence motion against him needs to be seen. At the no confidence motion against the Prime Minister, 16 members of the SLFP, including 6 cabinet ministers of the government voted in favour of it. The Prime Minister has come in for criticism for calling on his party members to desist from taking the no confidence motion against the dissident ministers forward.
The no confidence motion against the SLFP ministers could have led to a further splintering of the UNP-SLFP alliance and been harmful to the larger unity of the government that is necessary if fundamental political change it to take place. It is almost certain that the no confidence motion against the SLFP ministers would have been opposed by the other SLFP members, including those who had abstained in the vote of no confidence against the prime minister and, indeed, President Sirisena himself. In addition, the rebel SLFP members who are currently in the Joint Opposition led by former President Mahinda Rajapaksa would very likely have joined in solidarity with their SLFP counterparts in the government to vote against the no confidence motion. Therefore, the no confidence motion against the SLFP ministers would have had the unintended consequence of unifying the SLFP members in the government and those in the Joint Opposition. This would have been to the further detriment of the UNP-SLFP alliance in the government.
The no confidence motion against the SLFP ministers would also have posed a problem to the ethnic minority parties. They would have no particular reason to vote for it. It is likely that they would have abstained in a vote of no confidence against the SLFP ministers. The net result of the no confidence motion therefore would have been that the alliance that came together to support the Prime Minister in the no confidence motion against him would have got dissipated in the no confidence motion against the SLFP ministers.
By not pursuing the no confidence motion against the SLFP ministers the larger unity of the government has been preserved and gives back the possibility of a 2/3 majority in parliament that is required for fundamental political reform. Both the UNP and SLFP components of the government are necessary for this task. They have different leaderships, different visions and different strengths. The two components together reflect the diversity of the majority of the population. The local government election result in February at the mid-point of the government’s term of office showed how much this constituency has got eroded. It is important that in the next 18 months prior to the next set of national elections that the government should win back the support of the electorate.
The renewed opportunity that the 122-76 victory in the no confidence motion has brought to the government needs to be translated into support at the grassroots. This will best be done by the government working together decisively and cohesively to meet the people’s expectations with regard to economic development, anti corruption and a lasting solution to the ethnic conflict. President Sirisena and the SLFP component of the government are as much needed for this as Prime Minister Wickremesinghe and the UNP component of the government. It is important to realise that Sri Lanka is not a homogeneous country, either in terms of ethnicity or social background and ideology. Depending on their backgrounds and contexts, some people have more trust in one leadership and less trust in the other, and vice versa.