Numbers game intensifies as no-confidence motion is presented

Mahinda Rajapaksa says he will vote for motion but speculation rife why he didn’t sign it – UNP seeks written pledges of support from party MPs for vote of confidence in PM – President insists National Economic Council should have full control of economy, with CCEM being scrapped, but PM asks for a week’s time

Obathumaatath mekeng sweep ekak vedenna puluwang or you also can win a sweep ticket through this, remarked ‘Joint Opposition’ parliamentarian Wimal Weerawansa as Dinesh Gunawardena handed a copy of the No-Confidence Motion against Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe, to Speaker Karu Jayasuriya.

Jayasuriya was not too pleased with the remark that hinted that he could become Prime Minister ousting Wickremesinghe. Mama oya sweep ticket walata kadera nehe or I am not greedy for those sweep tickets, he extorted.

Gunawardena, leader in Parliament of the ‘Joint Opposition’, handed over the motion signed by 55 MPs, four of them from the SLFP, on Wednesday afternoon. Present to grace the occasion was the de facto leader of the ‘JO,’ former President Mahinda Rajapaksa, and a group of parliamentarians who are his supporters.

“We are confident of having the motion passed in Parliament,” Gunawardena told the Sunday Times. He said the motion, the contents of which were revealed in these columns last week, has received wider support.

“Though I did not sign for it expressly at the request of the party, I propose to vote for the motion. In the past, I have not done so in respect of any other similar motion in Parliament,“ Mahinda Rajapaksa told the Sunday Times. Yet, there are growing indications, despite optimism amongst select SLFP Ministers, the motion is doomed to fail. How enthusiastic Rajapaksa himself was on this motion being filed is also a matter of speculation. Finger pointing on responsibility for such an imminent debacle has begun.

President Maithripala Sirisena, Guest of Honour at Pakistan’s National Day celebrations, being welcomed by President Mamnoon Hussain and Prime Minister Shahid Khaqan Abbasi. Pic by Sudath Silva

In fact, the quick handover of the motion to Speaker Jayasuriya last Wednesday, did raise eyebrows. It has now emerged that a formidable ‘JO’ section was trying to stall it. Barely 24 hours after it was handed over, Speaker Jayasuriya chaired a meeting of party leaders to discuss a date for a debate. It was House Leader and Minister Lakshman Kiriella who offered that they debate it to a finish on April 4. Dinesh Gunawardena was to insist that Standing Orders of Parliament should be followed. A somewhat angry Kiriella retorted, “You asked for an early debate. We have given you one. Why are you now complaining?” Gunawardena explained that in terms of provisions of the Standing Orders, the motion should be on the Order Book of Parliament for five days. It was agreed that there would be a 12-hour debate – from 9.30 a.m. to 9.30 p.m. on April 4.

The very next day, last Thursday, the question of numbers for the passage of the motion in Parliament formed the subject of discussion when a group of ‘JO’ and SLFP parliamentarians met in the lobby of Parliament. They included Dinesh Gunawardena, Wimal Weerawansa, Mahindananda Aluthgamage, Susil Premjayantha and Thilanga Sumathipala. Minister Premjayantha remarked that “whether or not the ‘JO’ succeeds in the no-confidence motion, it will yet be the winner. Its passage will be a credit to the ‘JO’. A defeat will pave the way for even some SLFP parliamentarians to join the Opposition ranks.” Whatever the onetime, United People’s Freedom Alliance (UPFA) General Secretary, who then boasted that he would sit in Opposition benches if he could not forge unity between the feuding factions of the SLFP, is now sceptical is indeed interesting. This is whilst SLFP Minister S.B. Dissanayake, a prime mover for the SLFP, told his colleagues he was “quite confident” the no-confidence motion would be passed with the required numbers.

The United National Party (UNP) that has remained somewhat defensive over the no-confidence motion has also gone into high gear. At a previous UNP parliamentary group meeting, Minister Mangala Samaraweera insisted that Ranil Wickremesinghe should not only remain Prime Minister but also should continue to serve as the leader of the UNP. The fact that it was Wickremesinghe who helped him become a member of the UNP when he was in the unregistered SLFP (M) faction (where he and late Sripathi Sooriyaratchchi were MPs) was not lost on him. Backing Samaraweera’s move strongly was Minister Rajitha Senaratne.

Even at the weekly ministerial meeting on Tuesday, Minister Ranawaka raised issue over the no-confidence motion. He said it was the Prime Minister now and would soon be the Speaker later. Thereafter, he said, there would be an impeachment motion against the President. He said the matter should not be taken lightly and asked “are we going to allow this to happen?” He argued that 6.2 million voters had given a mandate to this Government. Endorsing Ranawaka’s remarks, his ministerial colleague Rajitha Senaratne, declared “we need to work together.”

“Otherwise, we will be forced to take our own decision,” he said in what seemed a veiled threat directed at the President. Sirisena remained unmoved. The occasion for the discussion was a Cabinet Memorandum Ranawaka has submitted for political reforms. A highlight is a recommendation for both the SLFP and the UNP to form a Leadership Council comprising younger ministers and allow them to run the country’s economy. It is to come up for discussion next Tuesday.

Last Thursday, when the UNP parliamentary group met, strongly advocating that a vote of confidence be moved on Premier Wickremesinghe was Minister Lakshman Kiriella. It was unanimously adopted. The move has so far drawn more than 80 signatures, a party official said. He said it would increase when partners in the United National Front (UNF) place their signatures. Minister Patali Champika Ranawaka, a leader of the Jathika Hela Urumaya (JHU), a partner in the UNP Government, called for immediate structural changes in the Front. Most MPs remained silent but Minister Gamini Jayawickrema Perera backed his proposal. Ranawaka walked away from the meeting without signing the Confidence Vote. He noted that what really mattered was not a no-confidence vote or a confidence vote. Urgent measures were needed to win back the support of the people since the outcome of the February 10 local polls was historic and should not be ignored. See Q & A on next page. That Wickremesinghe had garnered the support of his own party members by committing them to sign is to his credit. However, if one is to go by past political history, the untoward happens too. A flat tyre, hospitalisation or similar situation during voting time could still keep a handful away.

Other than obtaining signatures of those in the United National Front (UNF), the confidence vote will neither be handed over to the Speaker not debated. A party official said it would remain as a proof that UNF MPs were in support of Wickremesinghe continuing as Prime Minister.

Another UNP effort last Tuesday night was to apprise President Sirisena on its side of the story and discuss steps to be taken for the Government to move forward. UNP Chairman and Minister Malik Samarawickrema met President Sirisena. This was in the absence of UNP General Secretary, Kabir Hashim who left last Sunday for Umrah pilgrimage for Mecca in Saudi Arabia. The ritual is performed by Muslims and can be undertaken at any time of the year. This meeting laid to rest wild speculation that a UNP delegation sought a meeting with Sirisena. However, a prominent UNPer did have a one-on-one meeting with the President for 90 minutes, during which he argued Premier Wickremesinghe’s case. He is also said to have offered the party’s support to Sirisena for his candidature at the next presidential election. This, however, could not be confirmed and how he assumed authority of the party in this regard is not clear. Efforts to reach the senior member, who at one-time made a bid for the party leadership were futile. He did not answer phone calls or SMS messages. President Sirisena and Premier Wickremesinghe also had a one-on-one meeting on Thursday. Among the issues discussed were the no confidence motion and matters relating to the Cabinet Committee on Economic Management (CCEM)

The events that led to the latest vote of no confidence on the Premier, a senior politician involved in the process, said began earlier at the Nugegoda residence of Bandula Gunawardena. Speaking on grounds of anonymity, he said that the SLFP was then represented by Ministers S.B. Dissanayake, Susil Premajayantha, Anura Priyadarshana Yapa and Deputy Speaker Thilanga Sumathipala. He said, “We were in the unmistaken belief that the SLFP participants had the blessings of their leadership. This was confirmed as the talks progressed. From the beginning, this is why we were in favour of a unified approach with both sides being parties to the move. Bandula Gunawardena left on a weeklong visit to China. The venue of the meeting then shifted to the Borella residence of former MP and businessman, Tiran Alles.”

There was an error in last week’s report that taking part in this meeting was Basil Rajapaksa, the principal strategist of the Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP). He was not present. The error is regretted. He is learnt to have voiced some reservations, should the no-confidence vote be rejected in Parliament. He had shared the view that it would strengthen the UNP and concede to it the claim that Wickremesinghe enjoys the full confidence of Parliament. On the other hand, should the motion be passed, he is said to have raised questions over the gains for the SLPP, which had just swept the local polls. However, he has not publicly opposed the no-confidence motion.

The senior politician said “the discussions ended on a positive note. We sounded out some UNPers. They wanted minor changes in the text. This was done. We said there should be other signatories. They said four SLFPers would sign – Susantha Punchinilame, Nishantha Muthuhettigama, T.B. Ekanayake and Cader Masthan. (The latter accompanied President Sirisena on his two-day state visit to Pakistan) The remaining 51 are all members of the ‘Joint Opposition.’ We were also given to understand by Minister S.B. Dissanayake that he had the backing of 20 UNP parliamentarians though he did not identify them.” Signatures obtained for the UNP’s confidence vote could disprove this claim.

Despite claims to the contrary, President Sirisena has remained stoically silent over the latest no-confidence motion against the Premier. Last Tuesday evening, the SLFP parliamentary group met but the subject did not figure. No participant asked any question over it. Considerable time was devoted to discussing the formation of local councils where different parties did not have a majority on their own. Sirisena opined that the elected SLFP groups could negotiate with whoever the Chairman/Mayor was. It was because they enjoyed greater powers in terms of the new local government laws. Another subject of discussion was the upcoming May Day. It was decided to hold a well-attended rally. Though a decision is yet to be made, it is likely the venue will be Anuradhapura. The group meeting was followed by a session of the SLFP Central Committee. Here again, there was no discussion on the no-confidence vote on the Premier.

The fact that there has been no discussion on the motion at both meetings is understandable. President Sirisena cannot be seen to be publicly deliberating on a motion against his own Prime Minister. It is true he sought to ask him to step down but Wickremesinghe pointed out that in terms of the 19th Amendment to the Constitution he cannot be removed from office. On the other hand, a fuller support by the SLFP for the no-confidence motion would, without doubt, hinge on Sirisena’s blessings one way or the other. On that will depend the backing or the opposition of many SLFP parliamentarians including ministers. Causing concern for the UNP are other related developments. Sudath Chandrasekera, a former police officer, resigned after serving in Wickremesinghe’s staff for 33 years. His main complaint is a transfer from Temple Trees, which the Premier uses as the office, to Srikotha , the UNP headquarters in Pita Kotte. A letter of resignation, now being publicised, contains damaging material against the Premier though questions remain whether they are all factual. It also raises the question whether other forces are at play with the no-confidence motion round the corner.

Besides this, the relationship between President Sirisena and Premier Wickremesinghe, to put it in charitable terms, is less than cordial. It was at last week’s weekly ministerial meeting that Sirisena re-iterated his call to abolish the Cabinet Committee on Economic Management (CCEM). This body is chaired by Premier Wickremesinghe and meets every Tuesday afternoon. Decisions relating to most matters on the country’s economy are taken by the CCEM and routinely referred thereafter to the Cabinet of Ministers. At last week’s meeting, Premier Wickremesinghe urged Sirisena to give him time for a week to study the matter and come up with suggestions on how to move forward. This is how official spokesperson Minister Rajitha Senaratne described it at a media briefing:

“Under the President there is the National Economic Council. The issue is about all the cabinet papers being sent to the CCEM. That is because it takes time when all the cabinet papers go to this committee. What we have decided is to take only the main projects to this committee (CCEM). What will happen is that if decisions are taken that a particular decision should be forwarded to a Cabinet Sub Committee, it will be forwarded to this committee (CCEM). So it will not be that all the projects will be submitted to this committee, only selected projects.

Q: Was a cabinet paper submitted by the President in this regard?
A: yes, but it was discussed and that was the arrangement reached.”
Minister Senaratne is not altogether correct when he says that the Cabinet directs memoranda to the CCEM periodically. Such occasions have been very rare. The CCEM has been formulating its own agenda and taking decisions on them. Thereafter, brief accounts of the decisions have been forwarded for approval by the Cabinet of Ministers. This is one of the main aspects which led to accusations that the CCEM was working as a parallel Cabinet. Originally, President Sirisena had sought to abolish both the CCEM and even the recently set up National Economic Council (NEC). However, he amended his proposal in a memorandum submitted to his ministers dated March 5, 2018. This is what he said:

1 – Background – Need for Streamlining Economic Management
“It is very clear that there is a wide consensus in the Government and among the public that the current modalities for economic management have serious shortcomings and have not been able to find effective solutions to significant economic problems facing this country and people.

“The existing model of economic management has been primarily driven by the Cabinet Committee on Economic Management (CCEM). In this regard various stakeholders have pointed out various problems. The major problems pointed out include (a) lack of proper consultation with relevant ministries and institutions, (b) lack of adequate discussion when making decisions, (c), lack of proper and systematic analysis of economic proposals, and (d) lack of co-ordination of economic policies and their implementation. It has also been pointed out by various parties that the majority of proposals submitted and discussed at the CCEM represent those that should be decided at the level of line ministries rather than at CCEM.

“Hence, I strongly believe that economic management must be streamlined in order to solve problems faced by the people and to achieve economic prosperity for them.

“The National Economic Council (NEC), on the other hand, is now the highest central body for economic policy formulation, co-ordination and implementation of the country. As mentioned earlier, it is a professional body of economic and financial experts. It follows a very thorough and systemic methodology for economic decision making and management. This methodology includes (a) a consultative process relevant line ministries and institutions, (b) expert review and analysis of economic proposals considering economic, financial, legal, social, strategic, environmental and geo political factors, and (c) review and approval by the NEC Board before submission to the Cabinet. This approach ensures that all stakeholders are involved and consulted in the decision making process. It also provides the assurance to the Cabinet that economic matters submitted to it have been properly vetted from all relevant aspects.

“There is also wide consensus in the country that there should be only one high-level body in-charge of overall economic management. This is needed to ensure that there is one consistent economic policy and agenda resulting in more effective economic management. Furthermore, it is necessary to have one unified economic policy and management framework to restore and build the investor confidence which is very important for investments and economic development.

“Further, it has been pointed out that the present allocation of scope and institutions across ministries is not proper and highly scattered without much logic. This also has led to policy inconsistency, lack of proper co-ordination and implementation bottlenecks. Therefore, I firmly believe that there is a critical need for reviewing the existing scope of ministries and consolidate relevant departments and institutions under appropriate ministries.

2. Proposals
“Considering the above, it must be considered a high national priority that we take measures quickly to streamline the overall economic management process in our country.

1. Abolish the Cabinet Committee on Economic Management and all such committees, units and procedures associated with it.

2. All existing functions of the CCEM will be absorbed by the NEC. The NEC will function as the highest central body responsible for all economic matters including economic policy formulation, co-ordination and implementation. The scope, functions, and institutions relating to economic policy formulation, co-ordination and implementation in the areas of economic, financial, capital markets, public policy and donor agencies will be consolidated and brought under the purview of the NEC for effective and efficient policy formulation, co-ordination and implementation.

3. If selected Cabinet Memoranda submitted to the Cabinet need to be further reviewed only, a Cabinet Sub-Committee may review such Cabinet Memoranda. Upon completion of this ministerial review, such Cabinet Memoranda will be sent back to the NEC along with findings. Upon due consideration of the findings of the Ministerial review, the NEC will resubmit such papers to Cabinet for approval. The NEC will design a clear procedure for this ministerial review process.

“I firmly believe that the above recommendations are critical to properly fulfil our obligations for streamlining economic management of our country.”

The winding up of the CCEM also formed the subject of discussion between Minister Samarawickrema and President Sirisena. The UNP Chairman, in a bid to ensure that the CCEM functions in some form, suggested that matters at “national level” be decided upon by the Cabinet whilst those at “operational level” could be deliberated upon by CCEM. Since, the aim of abolishing the CCEM is to enable Sirisena to take control of the economy through the NEC, it is highly unlikely the CCEM will be allowed to function in any form.

Yet, contrary to the claim by Minister Senaratne at the media briefing, the minutes of last week’s ministerial meeting said on the subject of: “Streamlining the Economic Management of Sri Lanka” was deferred for the next meeting, at the request of the Hon. Prime Minister.” Ministers will hear Premier Wickremesinghe’s arguments to retain the CCEM but are highly unlikely to agree to let it continue. Last Tuesday, Premier Wickremesinghe continued to hold the CCEM meeting, this time at the parliamentary complex.

Saddled by a no-confidence vote against the Premier, there was more bad news for the Government. Fuel prices registered a substantial increase from midnight Friday and will have a snowballing effect on the prices of a variety of goods and services. This will include transport costs. That the public are being heaped more burdens whilst mounting bribery and corruption goes unabated and a deteriorating law and order situation continues does not bode well.

Champika wants young team to work out economic reforms package

Patali Champika Ranawaka

Patali Champika Ranawaka, Leader of the Jathika Hela Urumaya (JHU), a partner in the UNP Government, has warned that urgent changes were necessary if they were to win back public confidence.

He has just handed in a Memorandum on social, political and economic changes to the Cabinet of Ministers. The matter is expected to come up for discussion on Tuesday. He has also handed in the same proposals to the leadership of the United National Party (UNP). Here is a Q & A with Ranawaka, Minister of Megapolis and Western Development.

ON THE VOTE OF NO-CONFIDENCE AGAINST THE PREMIER: It is bound to fail. It does not make a difference whether it is a vote of confidence or no confidence. What has become necessary is to put things right. We need a reform package for economic, social and political reform. We have to bring in those young, who have the expertise to put matters right. Simply clinging on to existing positions and ignoring realities will be a serious mistake.

ON THE ECONOMY: Day by day, the economy is deteriorating. The growth rate has been 3.1 per cent in the past 16 years. There is little doubt that it would be less than three per cent for last year. The Government has demonstrated that it cannot only manage day to day matters, but also macro-economic issues.

For this year, until now, there have been 114 protest campaigns. That works out to four a day and they disrupt the normal life of the community. It adds to instability. There is a power deficit. The Ceylon Electricity Board (CEB) is losing money. The Colombo Port is functioning to maximum capacity. So is the international airport in Katunayake. No steps have been taken to address these issues. On the macroeconomic side, there is inflation, high interest rates and the rupee has seen a downward fall to the US dollar.

ON THE UNITED NATIONAL PARTY: The UNP will face the same fate that befell left parties like the LSSP. They won only 28% of the vote at the local polls. This is bound to drop even further at the upcoming Provincial Council elections. The outcome of the local polls was a very significant event and is a historic landmark. The party should take serious note of it. A restructuring of the party with young leaders being given due place is imperative. Even the SLFP is now dead after the local polls. The UNP should take serious note of it instead of paying attention to mundane issues.

We are old fashioned and go about with business as usual. One has to look at the changes that have taken place in other countries.

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