THE NO CONFIDENCE MOTION AND ITS POLITICAL STAKES

Is there a low – cost way out from the present crisis boiling within the Maithripala Sirisena – Ranil Wickremesinghe administration? During the past few days, a number of well – wishers of the present government posed this question to me in personal conversations. All of them are people who have contributed in a variety of ways to the political change of January 2015. They are now deeply worried about the inevitable disintegration of the yahapalanaya regime, with two other inevitabilities – rendering irrelevant the reform mandate of 2015 and the returning to power of the unreformed Rajapaksa camp with a plainly authoritarian political agenda. Still there are no signs of a new option emerging, embodying the democratic and humanistic ideal of our society.

In these conversations, I have also been repeatedly reminded of a bitter political truth. We as citizens who are seriously committed to social and political change may bring politicians of various hues into power through the democratic process. That we do with the hope that politicians and their parties would be truthful to the mandate we, and our fellow citizens, frame and give them. In power, they pay no heed to the concerns of the citizens who authorized them to rule. With scant regard for the popular trust placed on them, the politicians have the habit of running away with political power. At times, they might even get into self-destructive power fights among themselves, as it is happening now, fully ignoring why the people placed their trust on them. Worse still, they show no understanding of why they have been entrusted with political power to begin with. This is the stuff that causes disillusionment with democracy.

Negotiated solution?

While I was thinking about this dacoit behaviour of our political class, another friend queried whether it would be possible for some prominent sympathizers of the regime to talk to the two leaders, the President and the Prime Minister, and persuade them to work out a negotiated settlement before April 4. That is a proposal coming out of a genuine concern about the consequences of the no confidence motion (NCM) against the Prime Minister, whether it gets through or not. In whatever way the NCM ends, the ultimate winner would be the Joint Opposition (JO), as long as Sirisena and Wickremesinghe are locked in their continuing power struggle as adversaries.

Meanwhile, at the risk of giving too much political credit to the JO, one has to still acknowledge the plain truth that the JO has succeeded through this NCM to turn the two power centres of the yahapalanaya government into enemy camps.

They have been working on this strategy for some time and it has finally succeeded. The JO’s success is due to a variety of reasons, both external and internal to the regime. Key among the latter is the fact that neither of our two leaders had a sincere understanding of why the majority of Sri Lankan voters in 2015 gave them a mandate, not just once, but twice. Not being faithful to the popular mandate, they allowed the government to degenerate into what it is now.

Escalation

Given the intensity with which the conflict between the two camps of the government has been escalating during the past few days, there is hardly any political space for a third party – even that of a group of sympathizers — to intervene and de-escalate the unfolding power struggle.

What we are witnessing in Sri Lanka at present is an unusual power struggle. It is one between two centers of power within the same government that are elected on the same popular mandate and therefore are expected to work in cooperation and mutual trust. With all its shortcomings that are coming to the surface now, the spirit of the 19th Amendment to the Constitution also expected the President and Prime Minister to work in unison.

Some conflicts have a tendency to develop slowly over a time and then escalate rapidly and end in a big-bang type finale, with destructive consequences for all. The present conflict within the yahapalanaya regime seems to be of that type. Its intensity and escalation seem to rest on two dimensions of the conflict – political and personal.

The minds of both President Sirisena and Prime Minister Wickremesinghe seem to be so closed on each other that the political rivalry and personal bitterness between them are closely intertwined.

It is quite revealing that in this simmering crisis, neither of them has so far uttered a single word of support or sympathy for the other that could have made de-escalation of their rivalry even faintly possible.

Thus, this is such an unusual instance of political and personal betrayal and enmity being played out in the public arena, and at the level of state power, that one has to turn to Roman History or feudal monarchies to see some parallels. It is a modern version of the conflict between the King and his Prime Minister, with courtiers poisoning the mind of the King to serve their own agendas.

Meanwhile, the NCM is scheduled for April 4. There is hardly any time now for the two leaders to realize that their on-going power struggle will only devour them.

Choices made

The conflict between the President and the Prime Minister has some specific features. The behaviour of the two sides so far suggests that the conflict has been maturing over a period of two years. Its transition to an open power struggle probably occurred towards the end of last year and it exploded openly during the local government election.

Meanwhile, the escalation of the conflict and setting up the goal of a unilateral outcome appeared to be the strategic choice first made by President Sirisena and his team. In contrast, Prime Minister Wickremesinghe’s response during the local government election campaign has been a low-key and measured one, probably expecting a turn towards de-escalation. However, the intervention made by the JO through its NCM altered the conflict trajectory, redrawing the battlelines. Now, the whole conflict revolves around, and is reduced to, a single issue: Should or shouldn’t Ranil Wickremesinghe continue as the Prime Minister? President Sirisena’s stand seems to be very firm that Wickremesinghe should not.

What will happen if the NCM is passed by a majority of MPs on the day of its debate and voting? We still do not know whether the NCM is against both the Prime Minister and the government.

The Constitution does not provide for an NCM in the Prime Minister as such, but against the Cabinet of Ministers as a whole. Thus, if an NCM was passed against a PM, it would not have constitutionally binding consequences. Nevertheless, it would be difficult, politically and ethically, for a PM who has lost the confidence of the majority of members of Parliament, to continue.

In such a scenario, Wickremesinghe would be forced to resign due to political and ethical reasons, rather than mandatory constitutional consequences.

Only an NCM in the government will have constitutionally binding outcomes. Once a majority of MPs passed such an NCM, then, the consequences can be gleaned from Clause 48 (2) of the Constitution. It says that, “the Cabinet of Ministers shall stand dissolved” and “the President shall … appoint a Prime Minister, Ministers of the Cabinet of Ministers, Ministers who are not members of the Cabinet of Ministers, and Deputy Ministers.” Then, the Cabinet being automatically dissolved, the Prime Minister can only be deemed to have resigned too.

With regard to the Prime Minister, there seems to be some ambiguity in this clause. Perhaps, in order to avoid this legal ambiguity, the JO may have drafted the NCM as one against both the Prime Minister and the government.

In the event of the passing of the NCM in the government and the Premier and if the NCM drafted as one directed against both the PM and the government, it would have some drastic political consequences. The President would be under pressure to appoint a new Prime Minister from the SLFP, and that is most likely to be his first choice too. That will alter the balance of power between the UNP and SLFP in the coalition Government decisively in favour of the President. If the President wants to play a slightly Machiavellian game, he can even appoint a UNP front runner as the replacement for Wickremesinghe.

In such an eventuality, President Sirisena’s own political project, which suffered a setback at the local government elections in January, will get a new boost too. A bruised and weakened UNP will certainly see an escalation of its internal power struggle. Thus, a successful NCM will herald a new phase for (a) the yahapalanaya regime with the UNP as a chastised partner, and (b) the UNP as a political party without Ranil Wickremesinghe as its leader.

If NCM defeated

Now, what would be the consequences if this NCM was defeated? The scenario would be more than interesting, because of the fact that President Sirisena appears to be backing the NCM proposed by the JO. Several SLFP Ministers who are close to President Sirisena have already stated that they would vote in favour of the NCM. They have also indicated, without being contradicted, that they represent President Sirisena’s position.

Thus, if the NCM, backed by the President’s SLFP, was to be defeated, it would certainly weaken the position of President Sirisena within the coalition government and bring the UNP back to the reckoning as the key power centre of the government. President Sirisena’s bargaining power with the Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP), the breakaway party of the SLFP, will also diminish.

It would also be a serious setback to President Sirisena’s new project of emerging as the new ‘national leader’ of the country with a new political vision different from that of both Mahinda Rajapaksa and Ranil Wickremesinghe. Meanwhile, if there is cross voting in favour of the Prime Minister, another internal division within the SLFP led by President Sirisena cannot be ruled out either. A few UNP MPs might also opt for cross voting.

UNP

Even if Prime Minister Wickremesinghe escapes parliamentary censure, his position as the UNP Leader seems untenable. Many disgruntled UNP MPs might vote against the NCM on condition that Wickremesinghe would give way to a new leader and a new set of party managers immediately.

His old practice of procrastination by appointing party committees in times of crisis and waiting for committee reports until he could reconsolidate his position is unlikely to work this time around.

What is likely to be most significant is that whatever the outcome of the NCM, the class and cultural character of the UNP leadership is set to change, and change decisively. The Royal College Old Boys will be forced to take a backseat in the party affairs.

Given these discernible political consequences, we can assume with confidence that the stakes on the NCM are quite high. Therefore, many surprises can spring over the next three days. Three days that could prove a very long time in politics.