BY GAGANI WEERAKOON
A week after the releasing of the results of the Local Government Elections held on 10 February 2018 under new mixed electoral system, the governance of the country has come to a deadlock with President Maithripala Sirisena looking for a replacement for Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe and the latter being determined to continue in office.
In less than 24 hours of issuing of the results of the Local Government Elections indicating a sweeping victory for former President Mahinda Rajapaksa-led Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP), the life of the Unity Government of President Sirisena and Prime Minister Wickremesinghe came under threat with Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) Ministers in the Cabinet demanding the removal of Wickremesinghe from office.
The SLPP in their pre-election campaign vowed this will be a decisive election that would change the Government, an indirect warning that both the SLFP and UNP (United National Party) as political parties and as coalition partners of the Unity Government laughed at asking “how can one topple the Government when the election is only to appoint representatives to Local Government bodies?” However, the LG polls results appear to be a cluster bomb at least for PM Wickremesinghe, if not for President Sirisena, as he was facing a threat of losing the Premiership as well as his party leadership which he consistently held for 24 years since 1994.
Soon after it was clear that they have won the LG polls former President Rajapaksa who led the SLPP election campaign addressing media on Tuesday (13) demanded that Government should call for a General Election as the people have displayed their displeasure at the Unity Government by voting for the SLPP.
By then, it was reported in almost all national newspapers quoting UNP sources that Prime Minister Wickremesinghe obtained the consent of President Sirisena to form a UNP Government in place of the current Unity Government between the UNP and the SLFP.
“The President had also informed the Prime Minister that he would request the MPs who want to remain in the SLFP to join the UNP if it could muster a majority,” the reports further added.
It was also reported that the other parties in the United National Front (UNF) had also agreed to form a UNP-led Government.
The Tamil National Alliance (TNA) was also said to be prepared to support the Government but would not accept any ministerial portfolios.
However, after seeing the news reports, the President’s media unit issued a statement emphasizing that no agreement had been reached between President Sirisena and Prime Minister Wickremesinghe on the future political activities of the Government or on setting up the administration in Local Government bodies.
The TNA on the other hand, has definitively said that that they would not join the Government under any circumstance until a durable solution for the national question is reached.
Parliamentarian M.A. Sumanthiran added that as a policy the TNA would not be a part of any Government under any circumstance.
“There is no possibility of us joining the Government. We have consistently ruled that out as a matter of policy that we will not participate in any Government until the national question is solved,” he said.
However, he said that the TNA would give its support to a Government which would take steps to address the issues of the Tamil people
“If there is a Government in place that will take progressive steps to address the issues of the Tamil people, both Constitutional and immediate needs, the TNA will cooperate with it. But it does not mean that we will join them,” Sumanthiran clarified.
SLFPers threaten to sit in Opposition
In a dramatic turn of events, a group of SLFP Ministers and Parliamentarians in the current regime said they are planning to ditch the President and sit in the Opposition in the House if President Sirisena fails to remove Wickremesinghe as the Prime Minister and chart a new political journey under a new Prime Minister.
A senior SLFP Minister said that they had already conveyed their decision to the President following talks held with the latter after the completion of the 2018 Local Government polls.
He added that a large number of UNP ministers and MPs had also decided to dump the UNP and join the SLFP ranks if the President is willing to commence this journey afresh without Wickremesinghe at the helm as the Premier.
However, a senior UNP Minister added that the Party was of the view that Wickremesinghe should continue as the Prime Minister while the tenure of the current regime lasts.
He observed that talks were currently being held to form a UNP regime of its own and if that were to happen, the SLFP will invariably be forced to sit in the Opposition.
The crisis situation in the Unity Government continued to deepen throughout the week with both parties engaging in a tug-of-war on who should govern the country.
According to reliable sources, President Sirisena, following demands by SLFP Ministers in the Government, had asked Prime Minister Wickremesinghe to step-down.
While, both parties have failed to reach an agreement on the matter, at the bilateral meeting held on Monday night, President Sirisena had allegedly warned Wickremesinghe that he will not give ministerial portfolios to any SLFPer who would join the UNP in forming a Government.
The President’s warning came as UNP backbenchers are pushing the Prime Minister to form a UNF Government without SLFP Ministers.
Several rounds of discussions were held on Tuesday (13), in this regard within the UNP and SLFP separately as well as between the President and several groups representing the UNP, sources claimed. These groups have gone to President Sirisena suggesting various UNP stalwarts’ names for the post of Prime Minister.
However, there was another meeting attended by Prime Minister Wickremesinghe and UNP Cabinet Ministers at 8 p.m. on Tuesday night with the President where they insisted that Wickremesinghe should remain in office.
The possibility of reducing the number of Cabinet Ministers to 30 was being considered in political circles, particularly within the UNP, following the results of the Local Government elections.
If the UNP forms a UNP-led Government, there is a possibility of decreasing the number of Cabinet Ministers to 30, Parliamentarian Harshana Rajakaruna said.
Meanwhile, UNP Parliamentarians, who met Prime Minister Wickremesinghe at the Temple Trees Tuesday morning, demanded that he should give up the Party leadership and give the reins to someone else.
It is not only the UNP that is contemplating party reforms, but the SLFP too, are looking at replacing its General Secretary Duminda Dissanayake. According to SLFP sources, Sports Minister Dayasiri Jayasekara’s name has been suggested for the post.
Meanwhile, Indian High Commissioner Taranjit Singh Sandhu and US Ambassador Atul Keshap met President Sirisena on the same day, amidst the current political crisis. While, sources close to the President indicated they discussed the current political situation in the country, diplomatic sources claimed it was a routine meeting that was scheduled earlier.
“The High Commissioner is going to India to meet the new Foreign Secretary, whom he didn’t get to meet after assuming duties in Colombo. Therefore, he met President Sirisena as routine before taking up the tour,” Indian High Commission sources said.
US Ambassador, Indian HC call on President
However, it was also reported that the two diplomats representing India and USA called on the President after meeting PM Wickremesinghe at the Temple Trees.
On the same day, UNP backbenchers, who met party leader Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe, had urged the Premier to form a separate UNP Government.
Back benched MPs Kavinda Jayawardene, Nalin Bandara Jayamaha, Thushara Indunil, Wijepala Hettiarachchi, Hector Appuhamy, Mayantha Dissanayake, Sandith Samaraisnghe and Bandula Lal Bandarigoda have made this request from Prime Minister Wickremesinghe when they met him at the Temple Trees.
By Wednesday (14) The United People’s Freedom Alliance (UPFA) requested President Sirisena to take steps to appoint a new Prime Minister who can muster the majority support in Parliament.
A Senior Cabinet minister said that UPFA had decided to propose the name of Transport Minister Nimal Siripala de Silva for the post of Prime Minister.
Party Secretary Minister Mahinda Amaraweera and SLFP National Organizer Minister Susil Premajayantha had made this request from the President in writing.
The letter said, “The UNP and the SLFP agreed to form the National Unity Government only for two years. That period has now lapsed. During this period, UNP leader Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe oversaw subjects such as Constitution making, Foreign Affairs, judicial matters, economic matters and law and order. Though it was difficult for us to agree to some decisions taken by the Prime Minister, we adhered to them as we were collectively bound. Instead of taking action against corruption and fraud as discussed during the election, it is not a secret that a major fraud, namely the Central Bank Bonds scam, took place with the knowledge of the Prime Minister.”
The two ministers wrote that people gave a verdict against the Government for going against the norms and principles of good governance.
They said it was unacceptable to allow the Prime Minister to continue to rule the country given the extremely small mandate received by his party at the recently concluded LG polls.
On Thursday (15) the UNF Parliamentary group decided to continue the Unity Government with some changes of portfolios and strategies.
UNP General Secretary Kabir Hashim said that the Unity Government would continue, but would focus on a new set of goals and objectives.
“We decided to change the composition of the Government while being headed by President Maithripala Sirisena and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe,” he said.
Minister of Law and Order and Southern Development Sagala Ratnayaka also informed the UNF Parliamentary group that he had no intention to continue acting in his Ministerial portfolio.
Ratnayaka had said that he would not think twice to sacrifice any post when it comes to determining what is best for the UNP.
Ratnayaka later updated his official Facebook page announcing his decision to the general public. In his Facebook post, Ratnayaka said that the decision of giving up the post was a personal decision.
“I informed Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe that I am always ready to give my best for the future of the UNP. This is my personal decision and I took it to ensure the strength of the Party,” he noted.
Furthermore, he said that his loyalty to the Party has not changed. “I am ready to take any responsibility given by the Party,” he added.
Ratnayaka who previously held the Southern Development Ministerial portfolio assumed duties as the Minister of Law and Order on 17 November 2017, replacing Minister Tilak Marapana.
Meanwhile, by Thursday (15) President Sirisena had scheduled a breakfast meeting with heads of media institutions on Friday (16) but cancelled the meeting at the eleventh hour.
Ministry Secretaries‘ meeting
He however, called all the Ministry Secretaries to the Presidential Secretariat on Friday and gave instructions to continuously carry out the programmes implemented under the purview of the Ministries and at institutional level, without leaving any room to have shortfalls or hindrance on any development project of the country.
Expressing his views regarding the information he received that certain Ministries are not functioning properly during this post-election period, said that the policy of the Government regarding the development process of the country will not change under any circumstance.
“It is common for changes to occur in the field of politics after an election,” said the President adding that the responsibility lies on the Secretaries to continue the development projects according to the policies of the Government for the betterment of the people, ignoring the political situation.
President Sirisena pointed out the need of solving issues that arise at institutional level when implementing that process and further advised to continue development projects while reviewing progress of those projects.
The President also said that he expects to visit every Ministry in future to look into the programmes carried out at the ministerial level.
The President further said that he expects to implement necessary plans in the agricultural field as well as in the food production process while facing the future drought situations and climate changes, following the consultation with the geologists, scientists and other relevant experts.
Further attention was paid to the issue of coconut prices and the need to take stern action against the individuals who violate the Act on land distribution.
Ministry Secretaries including the Secretary to the President Austin Fernando participated in this meeting.
Seizing the opportunity of the President cancelling the breakfast meeting on Friday, PM Wickremesinghe called journalists including media heads and foreign correspondents in Colombo for afternoon tea where he said he will continue in office as per the Constitutional provisions.
However, even by last evening the UNP and the UPFA were having discussions with various parties to get the majority in Parliament.
The UPFA, which has now received the support of the Joint Opposition are to inform the Speaker that they will have the majority (113 seats) in Parliament by tomorrow (19) or by Tuesday. It was also said that as the JO refused to hold any portfolio despite offering support to President Sirisena, the latter requested them to at least have their representative in the Speaker’s Chair. The JO sources said last afternoon, they are planning to appoint former Speaker Chamal Rajapaksa again.
Meanwhile, two groups of the UNP were attempting to strike a deal with President Sirisena even by last evening.
The group of UNP Deputy and State ministers who are on a truce mission between the President and the UNP leadership were hopeful that the Unity Government would continue with Wickremesinghe in the PM’s office. They however, said powers of UNP ministers will be reduced. “We asked the President to take over several ministries under his purview,” they said.
At the same time, another group of UNPers were attempting to get the consent of Speaker Karu Jayasuriya to be the Prime Minister and continue the Unity Government. However, Jayasuriya earlier declined the offer saying he would not do anything without party’s consent.
Monday, 12 February, morning the United National Party Parliamentary Group meets and a group of MPs demand party reforms and leadership changes including the removal of Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe. At a separate meeting State and Deputy Ministers meets Wickremesinghe and asks him to step down as Party Leader
Around noon an SLFP Minister meets Sirisena and asks him to remove the PM.
The same evening President Sirisena and Wickremesinghe meet at the President’s residence and the President asks the PM to step down. PM says he can form a Government
Tuesday 13 February, different groups of UNP MPs meet the President separately and suggest different names as a PM from the UNP. Some suggest the name of Housing Minister Sajith Premadasa and others Speaker Karu Jayasuriya.
At the same time six groups of UNP back-benchers have a series of meetings with PM Wickremesinghe at Temple Trees. Our reporters also spotted the Indian High Commissioner Taranjit Singh Sandhu and US Ambassador Atul Keshap at Temple Trees. Later the same envoys met President Sirisena.
At Temple Trees that day, the UNP Cabinet Ministers meet PM Wickremesinghe and then at 8 p.m. PM and the Ministers meet President Sirisena at Malalasekara Mawatha and insist that PM should stay on.
At the same time, the Joint Opposition meet former President Mahinda Rajapaksa.
Later that night at 10 p.m. the JO goes to see President Sirisena.
There were speculations that SLFP representatives were going to Wijerama Mawatha to meet Rajapaksa, but they did not go.
Thursday 15 February: SLFP sources leak the information that President Sirisena is trying to form a Government headed by Nimal Siripala de Silva.
Same day, de Silva contacts former President Rajapaksa and asks for his support for a SLFP/UPFA Government. The reply was that the Joint Opposition will not join a new Government, but will support it from outside.
Sagala Ratnayake announces he is ‘willing to give up my portfolio’ of Law and Order ‘to strengthen the UNP,’ on Facebook.
Late night Thursday, President cancels, meeting with Media Heads scheduled for Friday 8:00 a.m. and making the much hyped ‘Special Strong statement’
Friday 16 February, morning UNP Group meets again at Temple Trees and afternoon PM Ranil meets media personnel
Minister Susil Premajayantha goes to see Mahinda Rajapaksa and MP Vasudeva Nanayakkara says he had told them the UPFA will form a Government on its own. Soon after a group of the JO, including Pivithuru Hela Urumaya Leader Udaya Gammanpila and NFF leader Wimal Weerawansa goes to meet President Sirisena at his official residence.