Mahinda or Ranil as the PM?

As indicated in these pages previously, after a lull of several weeks when the country was pre-occupied with the ethnic unrest in the Central Province and Ampara and curfews and a State of Emergency was clamped down in a bid to quell the violence, it is now back to ‘politics as usual’.

The focus has again reverted to the motion of no-confidence against Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe that is being sponsored primarily by the Joint Opposition (JO) but now has the active backing of certain stalwarts of the mainstream Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) who are also seeking the endorsement of President Maithripala Sirisena.

Moves to oust Prime Minister Wickremesinghe began soon after the results of the February 10 local government elections were announced. It was on the basis that the United National Party (UNP) led by Wickremesinghe came a distant second to the newly formed Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP) at the election.

It is not a secret that after the declaration of the election results, President Maithripala Sirisena did ask Prime Minister Wickremesinghe to step down. It was also suggested that Speaker Karu Jayasuriya take up the post. However, Jayasuriya is known to have politely but firmly declined the offer.

Prime Minister Wickremesinghe also called a media conference where he declared that he will remain in office ‘in accordance with the Constitution’. Experts then made a beeline to the Constitution where they found that under the 19th Amendment enacted with President Sirisena’s blessing, it appeared that the President had no power to remove the Prime Minister, once he was appointed.

There was a suggestion from some SLFP parliamentarians and ministers that this interpretation be put to the test by the President referring it to the Supreme Court. There were even public announcements that this would be done but it appears that saner counsel prevailed and that President Sirisena did not do so.

19th Amendment

In fact, it was only a few weeks ago that President Sirisena referred another issue- whether his tenure of office was six years or five years- to the Supreme Court. The court ruled that it was five years as the provisions of the 19th Amendment applied to him too. Perhaps once bitten, twice shy, President Sirisena desisted from referring the issue of removing the Prime Minister to the highest court in the land.

In a sense, the motion of no-confidence against the Prime Minister being based on the local government election results is ironical because the SLFP which is now calling for Premier Wickremesinghe’s ouster was comprehensively routed at the elections, polling only 13 per cent of the vote, compared to the UNP’s 29 per cent and the SLPP’s 40 per cent.

The motion of no confidence may defy logic in that sense but the stark political reality for the parliamentarians from the mainstream SLFP became obvious after the local government election: they would be sent packing by the voters, unless they threw in their lot with the SLPP.

Therefore, the motion of no-confidence against Premier Wickremesinghe is as much an exercise for survival for the 42 parliamentarians of the mainstream SLFP, as it is for the Prime Minister. This week SLFPers were therefore pursuing the issue in earnest.

Minister Dayasiri Jayasekera, a former UNPer who had clashed with Prime Minister Wickremesinghe when he was the Leader of the Opposition, reported this week that SLFP ministers would be writing formally to President Sirisena indicating their support for the no-confidence motion. This would only reiterate that the mainstream SLFP is now firmly supportive of the moves to remove the Premier.

Central Bank bond sale issue

Prime Minister Wickremesinghe, a veteran of many a battle for survival within the UNP, reportedly is not unduly perturbed and is confident he can ride out the storm. In fact, if he survives the vote, he can emerge stronger because the SLFP-JO combine in Parliament would have then failed in their effort.

The Prime Minister’s confidence appears to arise from what politics ultimately boils down to: a numbers game. The UNP has 106 parliamentarians. Among them, Wijeyadasa Rajapakshe, given his differences with the Prime Minister, is likely to support a vote of no-confidence. Aturaliye Rathana thera may also do so, effectively lowering the UNP’s numbers to 104.

However the Tamil National Alliance (TNA) has 16 parliamentarians. It is highly unlikely that the TNA will support a motion of no-confidence against Prime Minister Wickremesinghe in order to install a parliamentarian from the SLFP or the JO in that position, given the Prime Minister’s minority consistent friendly stance.

Even the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) is now fighting shy of supporting the motion of no-confidence. While the JVP agrees that Wickremesinghe is to blame for inaction in the Central Bank bond sale issue- the main basis of the motion-it also wants his inaction against the previous regime recorded on the motion. The SLFP and the JO for obvious reasons do not agree to this.

Arising from this simple arithmetical equation, there is only one possibility for the motion of no-confidence to succeed. That would be if a sizeable section of the UNP, about 16 of them, rebels against Prime Minister Wickremesinghe and votes against him.

While there are a handful of UNP parliamentarians who are dissatisfied with Prime Minister Wickremesinghe’s policies and leadership style, it would be a big task to find 16 UNPers to support a motion against the Premier. In fact, this week, the UNP parliamentary group unanimously resolved to support the Prime Minister.

It was also reported that the UNP was seeking a meeting with the President about the motion of no-confidence. The UNP was seeking to clarify the President’s stance on the issue as well as define the future course of the National Unity government in the wake of these developments spearheaded by section of the President’s own party, the SLFP.

Minister Dissanayake’s remarks

The reality of the numbers game is the reason why the submission of the motion of no-confidence has been delayed. While former President Mahinda Rajapaksa has said he will support a motion against Wickremesinghe, he was non-committal when asked about the delay in presenting it to Parliament. “Wait and see how we will win this”, was his reply. Rajapaksa obviously realises the importance of winning the motion if it is submitted and does not want to do so, unless he has the required numbers.

Minister of Social Empowerment S.B. Dissanayake however expressed great confidence that the vote would succeed. “Many UNPers will vote for the no-confidence motion”, Dissanayake told the media but observers have noted that the outspoken minister’s remarks have to be taken with a pinch of salt.

One significant question that is being asked is what would happen if the motion of no-confidence were to succeed? As matters stand, the only way a vote of no-confidence would succeed is if at least 16 UNPers vote for it. However, they will not be voting to then install a Prime Minister from the mainstream SLFP or the JO. This lack of a common objective is another reason why the vote is highly unlikely to pass through Parliament.

For the JO and the mainstream SLFP, the issue has now become a liability. Given their proud proclamations in public, they will feel compelled to go through with the vote of no-confidence. If the vote is defeated, Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe will emerge stronger.

Whatever the outcome, the coming weeks will be exciting, even for the most seasoned political observer.

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