By The “Sunday Times”Political Editor
A lesser known fact among most politically literate Sri Lankans was a directive Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe issued to all parliamentarians of his United National Front (UNF) ahead of the National New Year. On Monday April 9 he told them to refrain from criticising the 16 Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) MPs who had voted in favour of the no-confidence motion against him. That comprised six Ministers, the Deputy Speaker, four State Ministers and five Deputy Ministers.
The backdrop to Wickremesinghe’s directive, also lesser known, was a meeting a three-member United National Party (UNP) delegation had with President Sirisena, leader of the SLFP, on Sunday April 8. It comprised Ministers Malik Samarawickrema, Mangala Samaraweera and Vajira Abeywardena. Their talks were centred on wide-ranging issues over intra-party relations and how the coalition partners should move forward together. Thus it covered the role played by the 16 SLFP MPs, too.
Though he is loathed by sections in the UNP, Minister Samarawickrema to his credit has won the confidence of Sirisena both for himself and his party. During talks with Wickremesinghe on Thursday April 12, it was the President who told the Premier that he would like to see Malik hold the post of Minister of Social Empowerment (Samurdhi), Welfare and Kandyan Heritage even temporarily. This week he was even acting for Finance Minister Mangala Samaraweera who was with the President in London. Samarawickrema has also emerged as a sort of ‘Man of the Match’ after the no-confidence motion against the Premier. He lobbied intensely in Wickremesinghe’s favour. His style of diplomacy paid off and all in the UNF voted against the motion.
The trio reported back to their party leadership that their discussion was “very cordial and Sirisena gave them a favourable hearing.” According to them, he had even concurred with the representations made on behalf of the UNP that the rebellious 16 have ceded their right to remain in the Cabinet. That was expressly on the grounds that they had voiced their no confidence in the Prime Minister and thus their inability to work with him. The delegation left convinced Sirisena would act on their representations. This singular development ahead of the National New Year appears to have augured well for both Sirisena and Wickremesinghe, at least for the time being.
For Sirisena, leader of the SLFP and the President of Sri Lanka, it was removing a huge political burden from his shoulders. His Sunday (April dialogue with the three UNP ministers became a curtain raiser of sorts for a new scenario. He could continue with the coalition or the ‘National Government’ for the next 18 months, until the scheduled presidential election. That is with a Prime Minister whom he had failed despite his strong efforts to remove him from office. That is also with a Prime Minister, whom he once vowed during the presidential election campaign in 2015, he would continue to call “Sir” forever. It seems he has done the full circle and returned to where he began — working with the UNP.
Of course, 2020 would be a final deadline. Both he and Wickremesinghe could face each other as presidential candidates. A third will be former Defence Secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa on behalf of the ‘Joint Opposition.’ Allowing for frictions and factionalism to continue, the arrangement for the want of a better one, therefore does have a limited shelf life. Sirisena was conscious of the politically obvious — there was no one else whom he could call upon to form a Government if his fledgling party parted ways. The ‘Joint Opposition’ had baulked at the idea when it agreed to support overtures from a group of SLFP ministers for the no-confidence motion. Yet, his isolation and a crisis of credibility were enhanced by the no-confidence vote. He was also an immediate casualty. He has to now confront three different fronts, the ‘Joint Opposition,’ his own SLFP dissidents and, to a lesser degree, the UNP.
Wickremesinghe, though conscious of the different pitfalls with the SLFP and a target of it many a time, has, nevertheless, remained a conformist. He has faithfully fallen in line with Sirisena over different issues and has carefully avoided confrontational situations, at least publicly. A case in point was when Parliament passed legislation to extend terms of Provincial Councils. This was in particular to put off Sabaragamuwa, Eastern and North Central Provincial Council elections. Their terms ended on October 1 last year. Otherwise, a larger polls defeat for the SLFP and a relatively less one for UNP would have come earlier than the local councils elections on February 10.
In April 2019, elections to the Southern and Western Provincial Councils are due. The Uva Provincial Council election is due in October next year. The amended laws provide for PC polls to be conducted on one day. However, according to present indications, an early provincial poll is unlikely. Another occasion was when some UNP MPs who were dubbed as the “footnote clique” for making their own dissenting observations to the report of the Committee on Public Enterprises (COPE) that probed the Central Bank bond scam levelled criticism against Sirisena. The Premier directed that they refrain from making such remarks.
Wickremesinghe spearheaded Sirisena’s project and delivered. This was despite displeasure from his own UNP ministers and MPs who were critical of his actions. In essence, he has not been aggressive but submissive. His directive to his parliamentarians not to criticise the 16 SLFP MPs nevertheless has some rationale. He is conscious that such criticism would only be reflected eventually on Sirisena. Such a move, he feels, would increase the pressure on him to react differently. Hence, a UNP silence on the issue strengthens Sirisena in coping with an emaciated SLFP. It assumes the character of a confidence building exercise which is imperative if the UNP is to go the rest of the tenure with the SLFP.
Wickremesinghe requires such confidence and goodwill from Sirisena for his immediate priorities.
These include ‘rewarding’ with portfolios his party MPs who campaigned for him during the no-confidence motion and launching the UNP’s own projects and relief measures to cushion the rising cost of living. With the impending increase in fuel prices, such a scenario assumes high priority.
As is clear, formal talks between Sirisena and Wickremesinghe over the formation of a new Cabinet are still due. The duo will get down to the task together after Sirisena returns late tonight from London. He was there for the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM).
For these reasons and more, Wickremesinghe does not want to rock the boat, not after his ministerial trio had broken the ice with Sirisena. That way, he has a swathe of his battlefront secured leaving him to tackle other fronts ahead of the 2020 polls. Among them is introducing the already delayed reforms to his own party, gearing the party for the unlikely PC elections, presidential polls and strengthening the UNP’s grassroots level organisations. Top positions in the party – Chairman, General Secretary and National Organiser – remain to be filled.
Jockeying for these positions has already begun with claimants boasting of their track records. In terms of the UNP constitution, it is the prerogative of the leader to name persons for these top positions.
It is amidst these developments that Sirisena chaired a meeting of the SLFP Central Committee, the main policy making body, at his residence on Monday April 9. Most members at the meeting urged that the SLFP part ways from the coalition and go its own way. Even if he did not spell out the consequences of such a move, Sirisena was all too well aware. Parting ways would have left him without a Government in power adding to further instability and political chaos. It would not be a “National Government”, but a Cohabitation Government – like the ill-fated one of 2001-2004. He had to avoid it at any cost.
So, he successfully chose a two pronged approach – one to ask the SLFP ministers not to attend Tuesday’s (April 10) weekly cabinet meeting. This was to be their retaliation for a letter UNP leader Wickremesinghe had written seeking the dismissal of the group of 16. Thus, he avoided a situation where the UNP ministers would have staged a walkout if their SLFP colleagues were present. That would have forced Sirisena to cross swords with the UNP. Second was to persuade SLFP CC members not to decide finally to quit the coalition, not until another CC meeting was held on Wednesday April 11 to discuss matters further. Though he said he would summon one, he did not do so. Whether he would now have a meeting upon his return remains a critical question. The chances are that he may not.
The Cabinet meeting on Tuesday April 10 saw Sirisena being the only SLFP member present. He chaired it. As reported in these columns last week, he told the UNP ministers that SLFP MPs who voted for the no-confidence motion would join the Opposition benches. Sirisena in fact raised issue with the group of 16 during a meeting at his Paget Road residence on Wednesday (April 11) night. He told them that the Premier had sought their removal from the Cabinet through a letter sent to him. Contrary to earlier reports, by then, the group of 16 had sent in their letters of resignations dated April 10. However, it was to take effect only from midnight of Wednesday April 11, just hours after they met their leader. If this were to happen, Sirisena loses a sizeable part of his SLFP parliamentary group whilst his Government loses its two thirds majority in Parliament.
Former State Minister Sudarshani Fernandopulle told the Sunday Times, “After the no-confidence motion was taken up for debate, the 16 members who voted in favour of the motion met and decided to resign. We handed over our resignations on April 10. The President wanted us to stay on saying there was a cabinet reshuffle coming up. However, we declined the offer and decided to resign. The president did not ask us to resign.”
Since they quit, the 16 MPs have been meeting at different Colombo residences of their members. One of the prime SLFP movers of the no-confidence motion, former Minister S.B. Dissanayake, told the Sunday Times, “Three of our members – Chandima Weerakkody, Dilan Perera and Lakshman Wasantha Perera – had flown to London for a meeting with President Sirisena. We don’t know the details but they are expected to discuss the proposed re-structuring of the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP).”
Throwing more light on the issue was former Minister John Seneviratne who supported the no-faith vote. He said though there was no decision or any consensus, three MPs from amongst them have flown to London. “They want to brief President Sirisena about the prevailing situation and on matters relating to re-structuring the party. We feel strongly that the General Secretary of the SLFP (Duminda Dissanayake) and General Secretary of the UPFA (Mahinda Amaraweera) should be changed,” Seneviratne told the Sunday Times. The duo have come in for severe criticism from this group within the SLFP over the no-confidence motion. Amaraweera was one who earlier supported the move to bring such a motion but later abstained by absenting himself at voting time. They are also being accused of making contradictory public statements. Dissanayake also abstained by absenting himself. The group of 16 charged that he had taken part in their meetings to support the no confidence motion.
The Group of 16 splits
A significant development over the group of 16 is the fact that some have changed their mind about sitting in the Opposition benches. Whilst an unknown number is still set to sit in the Opposition benches, others are now backing out. The reasons appear to be personal, the fear of losing transport and other perks that they enjoy now or the fear of having to serve long outside the Government. The trio, one source said, would also urge Sirisena to summon an early meeting of the Central Committee to decide on a series of party reforms — a request which Sirisena is unlikely to grant immediately. Other than a demand to quit the coalition, such a move is also underscored by efforts to take control of both the SLFP and the UPFA. More so since larger number of members are calling for a withdrawal from the coalition.
The group of 16 who voted for the no-confidence motion are Ministers Dayasiri Jayasekera, S.B. Dissanayake, Susil Premajayantha, Anura Priyadarshana Yapa, Chandima Weerakkody, W.D.J. Seneviratne, State Ministers Lakshman Yapa Abeywardena, T.B. Ekanayake, Dilan Perera, Sudarshini Fernandopulle and Deputy Ministers Anuradha Jayaratne, Sumedha G. Jayasena, Susantha Punchinilame, Lakshman Wasantha Perera. Taranath Basnayake and former Deputy Speaker Thilanga Sumathipala.
The portfolios held by six ministers who resigned were temporarily re-assigned on Thursday April 12 to three also from the SLFP. They are: Sarath Amunugama Minister of Science, Technology and Research and Minister of Skills Development and Vocational Training. These two portfolios were held by Susil Premjayantha and Chandima Weerakkody. Ranjit Siyambalapitiya, Minister of Disaster Management. This portfolio was held by Anura Priyadarshana Yapa. Faiszer Musthapa Minister of Sports. This portfolio was held by Dayasiri Jayasekera. In addition Malik Samarawickrema was sworn in as Minister of Social Empowerment, Welfare and Kandyan Heritage. This was held by S.B. Dissanayake. Samarawickrema was also sworn in as Minister of Labour, Trade Union Relations and Sabaragamuwa Development. The portfolio was held by John Seneviratne.
At a sombre swearing-in ceremony on a rainy Thursday (April 12) evening, for the SLFP trio and UNP’s solitary Malik Samarawickrema (sans the media except for the official ones) Sirisena gave them a brief speech. He said those sworn-in would be holding those portfolios only for just ten days. Hence, he said, they should not place new name boards, print any new letterheads or visiting cards with their names as ministers in charge of the new portfolios. He made clear there would be a complete ministerial reshuffle when he returned from London. Invited to the swearing-in ceremony were three more SLFP ministers – Nimal Siripala de Silva, Mahinda Samarasinghe and Vijith Vijithamuni de Zoysa.
In the coming week, there would be at least four different priority issues for Sirisena to tackle. One would be the swearing-in of a new Cabinet which he says would be on a “scientific basis.” There is no change in the number of portfolios which either the SLFP or the UNP would hold. However, variations are likely when some of the subjects which are now handled by different ministries are merged. Sirisena told his last news conference early this month that the subject of sugar production is now being handled by three different ministries.
Of course, it was Sirisena who was responsible for assigning such subjects after ministers were named in August 2015. It is no doubt an acknowledgement that subjects have not been apportioned ‘scientifically.’ The Ministry of Social Empowerment (Samurdhi), Welfare and Kandyan Heritage, held until last week by the SLFP, has been ceded to the UNP. Appointed temporarily to the position is minister Malik Samarawickrema. Although the SLFP had been offered the Ministry of Public Administration in return, SLFP senior members are now seeking the Ministry of Highways. This portfolio, now with the UNP, has been a prized one with road development projects involving billions of rupees being undertaken. Both Sirisena and Wickremesinghe are set to deliberate on the number of portfolios and who should have them. This is expected to take place before May 8 when there will be a ceremonial sitting of Parliament. President Sirisena prorogued Parliament at midnight on Thursday April 12. It came after he discussed the matter earlier that day with Premier Wickremesinghe.
Focus on the economy
The second priority, more significant, is Sirisena’s policy statement in Parliament on May 8. For the first time he will spell out the Government’s economic policies which are mostly his own. This is since Sirisena taking over the running of the economy from the hands of Premier Wickremesinghe. He ensured the winding up of the Cabinet Committee on Economic Management (CCEM) which was chaired by Wickremesinghe and has now created a National Economic Council (NEC) at the apex level. The statement, which will set out the Government’s priorities and targets for the coming 18 months, is being keenly awaited by the business as well as the diplomatic community. This is to determine whether Sirisena would highlight any policy shifts. One of the areas where there has been disagreement between the SLFP and the UNP has been the sale or lease of state assets.
Government officials say he will avoid contentious issues and focus largely on coping with the cost of living as well as employment – two key factors ahead of a presidential election.
A third issue would be the basis on which he would continue the SLFP’s relationship with the UNP. Whilst an earlier suggestion has been to renew the Memorandum of Understanding (MoU), Sirisena, SLFP sources say, favoured a common minimum programme being incorporated. This is to ensure that both sides will work according to an agreed plan that would deliver quick results to the people.
The fourth issue, important for Sirisena, is how he would resolve the imbroglio over the group of 16 MPs. The only practical way out to resolve it is by asking the MPs in question to extend an unconditional apology to the UNP. Whilst some will be in favour, others would be reluctant to eat humble pie by doing so. Most of them want nominations in 2020 and their opponent would be the UNP. Therefore, whatever measures Sirisena adopts, a section of the SLFP MPs from the 16 moving to the Opposition benches would be inevitable. Those proposing to cross over want to remain as a separate entity and yet calling themselves SLFPers. They are, however, not averse to forming a loose alliance with the ‘Joint Opposition.’ This is perhaps the contributory factor for the demand to summon a meeting of the Central Committee. With an anti-UNP mood predominant there, sections of the group of 16 believe they could take over the reins of their party. However, this appears far-fetched.
On the other hand, the ‘Joint Opposition’ has also been thrown into a crisis with a move by the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) to move a private members motion in Parliament calling for the abolishing of the Executive Presidency. Remarks by JO Parliamentarian Bandula Gunawardena that they would back such a move if a provision calling for immediate parliamentary elections is incorporated have infuriated sections. A group led by Wimal Weerawansa, National Freedom Front (NFF) leader, has said that Gunawardena had no mandate to make such an offer. He is waiting for the ‘JO’ party leaders’ meeting to raise objections and urge them not to support the JVP move. He has contended that the call to abolish the Executive Presidency is a ploy by the JVP to win public support now ahead of the presidential election. The UNP said during the 2015 presidential election campaign that it was for the abolition of the Executive Presidency, a stance it continues to maintain.
In view of Vesak next week, Sirisena would put behind him the cabinet reshuffle and a policy statement at a time when his own SLFP remains in tatters. He will then have to brace himself for some of the most inevitable challenges on the economic front – a steep increase in the prices of fuel and cooking gas. It will escalate the prices of goods and services to a new high and is certain to earn the public wrath. Unlike stopping the mouth of a jar, the snowballing impact cannot be covered by a large tent or even through a censorship.
Sirisena does not seem to be lost on these burning issues. He went a step further than most of his predecessors to tell the Sri Lankan community in Britain this week not to believe 75 per cent of the media reports from Sri Lanka. Some argue he was referring to the social media, others say he was speaking in general terms about the media. His judgement came at the conclusion of more than half of his tenure as the President. Sri Lanka’s history is replete with instances of political leaders breathing fire on the media when the going is not good for them. More so, when they have created such situations themselves. It is certainly different from the climate that exists before they are elected.
Then, the sunshine stories of what they will do for the country and the people come as a major boost for their ego and image. When they fail to turn words into deeds the frustration turns to blaming it on the media. Even if one is to concede arguably that it is a common phenomenon, there is something worse. That is when they declare that the freedom they have given is being misused. Firstly, it is not their gift nor one leased by them. Media freedom is very much a part of democracy and good governance. Secondly, they still have the state machinery to deny, refute any reportage or carry out their own propaganda. Most democracies don’t have a state media anyway. Why then is all this chest thumping?