Sri Lanka Perspectives - April 2018: Heading for uncertain times
by R Hariharan on 11 May 2018 1 Comment

If the Joint Opposition (JO) and the pro-Rajapaksa Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP) had hoped to break up the ruling coalition through the No Confidence Motion (NCM) against Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe, the gambit failed. The motion could secure only 78 votes against 122 members who opposed it. Twenty six MPs apparently could not make up their minds and absented themselves at the time of voting.


PM Wickremesinghe used the opportunity to rally the United National Party (UNP) to defeat the NCM. At a breakfast reception held after the defeat of the NCM, the PM described the NCM as an attempt not to just oust him but the first step to topple the National Unity government led by President Sirisena. He said “we have shown what unity can achieve” and added the party should prepare for the coming provincial, presidential and parliamentary elections “without getting distracted by bankrupt opposition politicians, who were desperate to capture power by hook or crook” a clear reference to pro-Mahinda leaders. It is an anachronism that the defeat of the NCM helped Wickremesinghe consolidate his leadership position within the UNP and reorganise the central committee ostensibly to satisfy his detractors within the party.


The NCM exercise showed that the ruling coalition despite its inner weaknesses could still rally to successfully neutralise the formidable challenge of pro-Rajapaksa elements within the House. How long its fragile unity can sustain it in the face of the SLPP building upon its present strength is a moot point. The vote also exposed the limitations of the JO/SLPP to dislodge the shaky unity coalition from power, despite their internal bickering. Even crossing over of 16 SLFP members from Sirisena’s ranks to vote for the NCM did not help it succeed. The absence of 26 members from the house, showed the JO’s ‘last mile’ weakness in rallying the support of the fence sitters.


The NCM exposed many weaknesses within the present political framework – growing lack of trust between, not only the leaders of the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) and the UNP, but also among the rank and file in carrying on with the coalition rule. President Maithripala Sirisena’s ambivalent stand on the NCM showed his unhappiness with the PM and the UNP partners, despite all his affirmations of unity later on. 


Similarly, his firefighting exercise to keep the SLFP flock intact after 16 members who voted for the NCM walked over to the JO, seems to have satisfied none. The promised overhaul of the party in May 2018 to resolve the inner contradictions within the SLFP is waiting to become a reality. The party hoped put up a unified show of strength on the occasion of the May Day celebrations at Batticaloa on May 7, 2018 but did not live up to expectations.


We can expect the wrangling within the SLFP leadership sitting on both sides of parliament to continue. Probably it suits PM Wickremesinghe as he may find the politically weakened President more manageable. In any case, he has come out successful in managing the internal squabbles of UNP, though grumblings on undemocratic functioning of the party will continue.


The vote also posed a dilemma to the Tamil National Alliance (TNA) leadership. However, the 16-strong TNA voted against the NCM after it is said to have received Wickremesinghe’s commitment over its demands including to push through the new constitution. With Sirisena’s leadership weakened, TNA had little option but to support the UNP leader as a vote in support of the NCM could have paved the way for Rajapaksa to stage a strong comeback. It is doubtful whether Wickremesinghe would be able to live up to his promise to the TNA as some of the demands like a federal constitution or the merger of northern and eastern provinces would not be acceptable to the Sinhala majority, which has become the support base  for the SLPP. 


The logical course to Yahapalanaya (good governance) has to have three essential ingredients – a new constitution incorporating systemic and structural changes for good governance, abolition of executive presidency and resolution of what Tamils call the National Question – autonomy and equity for minority regions. For the time being, both the national parties appear to be comfortable with dragging their feet on pursuing the core issues of Yahapalanaya. However, due to the uncertain future, it is doubtful the coalition would be able to act on principled stand on all the three key issues.


Making of the new constitution has become even more difficult now as the delay in the process is increasingly polarizing the community on ethnic lines. Other systemic issues like the rationale for abolishing the proportional representation and preferential vote (PR) system and the power of the provincial councils are likely to loom large when the country goes to polls to elect new provincial councils.


Overall, Sri Lanka seems to be heading for an uncertain future which could weaken its economic performance and affect governance as well as erode the international credibility of the Sirisena-Wickremesinghe government. 



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