When marriages are in trouble, anniversaries go unnoticed. So it was last week. Last Thursday marked the second anniversary of the National Unity Government which was elected to office on August 17, 2015. In the throes of a controversy over the resignation of UNP Assistant Leader Ravi Karunanayake, that landmark passed with hardly a mention, [...]


A Govt. like no other

Two years on, rival-party coalition experiment falters; public discontent grows; time to re-set agenda

When marriages are in trouble, anniversaries go unnoticed. So it was last week.

Pulling in different directions: President Maithripala Sirisena and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe are seen together at a musical event in Colombo on Tuesday. Pic by Amila Gamage

Last Thursday marked the second anniversary of the National Unity Government which was elected to office on August 17, 2015. In the throes of a controversy over the resignation of UNP Assistant Leader Ravi Karunanayake, that landmark passed with hardly a mention, let alone a celebration.

If anyone needed reminding, this Government is a marriage of convenience between two arch rivals in Sri Lankan politics — the United National Party (UNP) and the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP). It is unprecedented in our post-independence history. In the so-called ‘land like no other’, this is a government like no other.

It was made possible only because, in November 2014, Maithripala Sirisena, the then General Secretary of the SLFP, defected to the opposition and took on the mighty Mahinda Rajapaksa, with the support of the UNP. Sirisena won the presidential election in January 2015 largely because the UNP’s base vote went to him, en masse. Without that, he would have only been an ‘also ran’.

In power and in place, Sirisena returned the favour. Hardly had the ink dried on the document he signed to assume office as Executive President, Ranil Wickremesinghe was sworn in as Prime Minister. That was done with such speed that some even cast aspersions on what must have been one of the first acts of the Sirisena Presidency — removing ageing veteran D.M. Jayaratne from prime ministerial office.

A minority UNP Government ensued and a general election was called. Sirisena found himself at loggerheads with his own party which, for the most part, remained loyal to its former strongman, Rajapaksa. In desperation, he had to use an ‘address to the nation’ to berate and disown Rajapaksa, declaring that even if the SLFP won the poll, he wouldn’t be appointed Prime Minister.

At the election, the UNP didn’t secure an overall majority. It had only itself to blame for that. In the seventh months it was in office, it had managed to blot its copybook with rumours emerging of corruption in the sale of Central Bank bonds. It was estimated that this cost the UNP a good 300,000 votes — and possibly a simple majority in the House. The SLFP came a close second.

Seven seats shy of an overall majority in the new Parliament, Wickremesinghe could have done a ‘deal’ with a few SLFPers, offered them ministerial portfolios and formed a stable government. After all, there were many ‘SLFPers’ who were in fact UNPers who had been seduced by Rajapaksa to cross over. Instead, Wickremesinghe — and Sirisena — wanted the SLFP in the Government, lock, stock and barrel.
The rationale for that was the new government’s intention to enact Constitutional reforms that would reduce the powers of the Executive Presidency, change the system of elections and deliver devolution of power. This overhaul of the Constitution required a two-thirds majority in Parliament. This could be achieved under the Proportional Representation (PR) system only if the two major parties worked together. Lofty ideals, indeed.

As it often happens, though, the best laid plans fall apart. Sirisena found that though he may be the Executive President, Head of State, Head of Government, Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces and the leader of the SLFP, his MPs were not under his command. A majority of them broke ranks and banded themselves as the ‘Joint Opposition’ (JO) in Parliament even though Speaker Karu Jayasuriya refused to recognise them as a distinct entity in the legislature.

If the JO has been a thorn in Sirisena’s side, so have the SLFP’s ministers been to Wickremesinghe. They have opposed the UNP’s vision and mission many times, issuing public statements at variance with the UNP — as they did with the Value Added Tax (VAT), the Hambantota Port, the South Asian Institute of Technology and Medicine (SAITM) and as they still do about the Executive Presidency. Clearly, the in-laws are creating problems in this marriage.

If Wickremesinghe expected Sirisena to be a ceremonial President attending prize-givings and similar functions and letting him run the business of government, he must be disappointed. Though not always, at times Sirisena has acted decisively — much to the annoyance of the UNP. The appointment of Indrajit Coomaraswamy — who incidentally captained the 1976 CR&FC rugger team in which Wickremesinghe’s good friend Minister Malik Samarawickrama was a member — as Central Bank Governor and the appointment of the Commission of Inquiry to probe the sale of Central Bank bonds are cases in point.

So, under Sirisena’s watch, Wickremesinghe’s prime ministerial office has been a crown of thorns. Thus far, fate has somehow conspired to decree that the man who has been appointed or elected Prime Minister the most number of times in this country has never been the Head of State or Head of Government. He may have been PM four times, but he has never had a free run in government.

The so-called ‘Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) for the National Unity Government was signed on August 21, 2015 by the general secretaries of the UNP and SLFP, Kabir Hashim and Duminda Dissanayake respectively, shortly after Wickremesinghe was sworn in again as Prime Minister after the general elections. That was for two years and would have, in the normal course of events, lapsed tomorrow.

However, just over a year ago, on July 21, 2016, Hashim and Dissanayake held a joint media briefing to announce that the MoU would continue for the full five years of this government’s term of office. “We don’t need documented agreements to work together” Dissanayake said, comparing the alliance to a proposed marriage. Hashim was to note that proposed marriages lasted longer than love marriages!
Today, no one raises the issue of formally extending the MoU which, among other things, explicitly prohibits crossovers between the two parties. Instead, the SLFP parliamentary group has reportedly been told by Sirisena to ‘wait until the end of the year’. That was when matters nearly came to a head with the motion of no-confidence against Ravi Karunanayake when SLFPers were getting their fifteen minutes of fame saying they would vote for the motion if it was presented in Parliament.

Two years into office and with just over two years left, Wickremesinghe must be pondering the options for himself and for his party. On the on hand, he is under obligation to the electorate to usher in good governance, put an end to corruption and enact Constitutional changes that will facilitate not only a dilution of powers of the Presidency but also meaningful devolution of power and lasting peace. In short, he needs to keep his promises he made to the people, who will judge him on this.

On the other hand, this is necessarily tied in with his political survival. Clearly, the SLFPers — at least, most of the ministers and MPs — are no longer enamoured with the idea of their continued dalliance with the UNP; they want an ‘SLFP government’ and if they need a Rajapaksa to bring it about, they will gladly go down that path. What is holding them back is the resistance from the Sirisena camp.

It now appears as if Sirisena has reneged on an earlier pledge to abolish the Executive Presidency. His loyalists in the SLFP are constantly reminding the country that he will be the party’s next presidential candidate and Sirisena hasn’t protested so far. It doesn’t take a political genius to figure out why: Any arrangement other than an Executive Presidency paves the way for the return of Sirisena’s nemesis, Rajapaksa and if that happens, the UNP will run its own race, instead of backing the incumbent President.

Having recently celebrated 40 years in the legislature and now, being the MP with the longest uninterrupted stay in the current Parliament, Wickremesinghe has seen more back-stabbings than those in all of Shakespeare’s plays put together. He must also be sobered by the experiences of the past two years, trying to work with an SLFP President with a somewhat different ideological bent and a pack of renegade SLFP Parliamentarians who even that President cannot control.

However, if he is to make the most of his next two years in office and is looking for reasons why the past two years were not as successful as he would have hoped, Wickremesinghe must take a look in the mirror and, as his uncle and mentor J.R. Jayewardene said in his farewell speech at the old Parliament in Colombo, quoting Mahatma Gandhi, ‘turn the searchlight inward’. The reflection that he will see is one of dilly-dallying and inaction when the bona fides of his own Cabinet ministers were called into question- and this has contributed greatly to mass discontent with the government.

That history repeats itself is a well-worn cliché in politics, and Wickremesinghe, the history buff that he is, must have a sense of déjà vu about all this, if he recalls that in the run up to the 1977 general election, Ranasinghe Premadasa and E.L. Senanayake were both claiming the mantle of ‘deputy leader’ of the UNP. Jayewardene held a secret ballot in the party and Premadasa won, only to be appointed ‘deputy to the leader’ by Jayewardene who didn’t relish the term deputy leader and something almost untranslatable into Sinhala.

In government after 1977, Senanayake was Minister of Agriculture, a prestigious portfolio at that time and, along with his Ministry secretary Ranjan Wijeratne, was accused of awarding contracts violating tender procedures. A Cabinet sub-committee probing the issue concluded that there was no evidence of corruption, although procedures laid down by the Cabinet for awarding contracts had not been followed.

Senanayake was at first shifted from the Ministry of Agriculture to the Ministry of Health, switching portfolios with senior party stalwart Gamani Jayasuriya, but after a public outcry, Jayewardene secured his resignation. The independent ‘Sun’ newspaper reported the news with the delightful headline, “EL tenders his resignation’! The scandal damaged the UNP’s standing as a ‘clean’ government and Jayewardene’s reputation as a strict disciplinarian had been called into question

Fast forward forty years and Premadasa’s son Sajith was battling Ravi Karunanayake for the No.2 slot in the party. A ballot was held and Premadasa won. He was appointed Deputy Leader — although Karunanayake was later given the consolation title of Assistant Leader, whatever that meant.

In government, Karunanayake was embroiled in the Central Bank bond sale controversy and while that was brewing he was shifted from the prestigious Finance portfolio to Foreign Affairs. In the aftermath of the public outcry following the revelation that his lease was paid by the dealer at the centre of the bond controversy, he had to be dragged kicking and screaming to write his resignation although he tried to make a virtue out of a necessity by quoting scriptures in Parliament in his resignation speech.

Karunanayake must be hoping that his fate will not be the same as that of Senanayake who, being a man of Prime Ministerial ambitions, was asked to serve later as Speaker and then as Governor of the North Central and Sabaragamuwa provinces following his resignation as Minister of Health. Nevertheless, it is clear that following the bond sale scandal, the UNP’s reputation as a corruption free government is in tatters and Wickremesinghe’s judgment is being called to question, in tolerating Karunanayake’s alleged shenanigans for so long.

At the time of writing another controversy about another Cabinet Minister — Wijeyadasa Rajapakshe — is brewing. Rajapakshe is being hauled over the coals by his own party for criticising the Hambantota Port agreement, thus violating Cabinet responsibility. This is not the first instance where Rajapakshe has spoken out of turn. He defended the controversial company Avante Garde in Parliament. Tilak Marapana fell on his sword and resigned for the same ‘offence’ but Rajapakshe has been allowed to stay on, much to the delight of the other Rajapaksas from Hambantota but he is expected to make a statement tomorrow (Monday).

If Wickremesinghe looks to Jayewardene’s style of government for inspiration, he will recall that three ministers resigned after disagreeing with the ‘Old Fox’: M.D.H. Jayewardena (after he criticised Ronnie de Mel’s budget proposals), Cyril Matthew (after he disagreed with JR’s decision to call an All Party Conference to redress ethnic issues) and Gamani Jayasuriya (after he disagreed with the Indo-Lanka Accord). Only the latter was amicable; the other two were quite firmly shown the door.

If being indecisive has cost him dearly, Wickremesinghe’s government has also been accused of inefficiency. When Sri Lankans gather to discuss politics, the discussion now goes something on the lines of ‘the previous government was corrupt and it seems this government is corrupt as well but at least the previous government got some work done”. This maybe an oversimplification, but it is not without a modicum of truth.

When the country was under the stranglehold of the Rajapaksas, strikes and protests were few and far between, the streets were clean and highways, ports, airports and stadia emerged, even if most of them were in faraway Hambantota and bore the Rajapaksa name. Then there was that other little matter: the war against arguably the most ruthless terrorist group in the world was won, a memory that Rajapaksa can evoke even at the next national elections in two years’ time, ten years after the event, to be guaranteed of some votes.

Of course, on the way there Sri Lanka almost became a monarchy, a Chief Justice was sacked by Parliament and an Army Commander was jailed — all unprecedented events in the country’s history. But that is why the Rajapaksas were sent packing. Two and a half years into office, a government worth its salt shouldn’t be wasting its time boasting that it has opened the floodgates of democracy when so much more remains to be done — and it can’t even dispose of its capital city’s garbage properly.

The government has failed miserably to prosecute and put behind bars those they claimed were corrupt for whatever reason, be it the inefficiency of the Police or the Attorney General’s Department or even the surreptitious stalling of inquiries by Rajapaksa’s ‘agents’ within the cabinet, which is the latest hypothesis. Ravi Karunanayake’s spectacular fall from grace has seen backbenchers in the UNP baying for Rajapaksa’s political blood and has resulted in the former first family being paraded before the cameras as they answered summons this week — but no one is holding their breath for a successful prosecution.

Meanwhile, many an issue and many an institution — SAITM, SriLankan Airlines, Sri Lanka Cricket, just to name a few — stumbles from one crisis to another and that is not the what the masses expected or what Wickremesinghe promised. His UNP has traditionally been better managers of the nation’s economy than the SLFP. JR unleashed a miraculous turnaround of the economy in 1977 and Premadasa, whatever his faults, kept the momentum going with his garment factories. Sadly, Wickremesinghe has been found wanting in this aspect although, to be fair, he has never had full control of a government.

However, Wickremesinghe does have two and a half more years to redeem himself. If he really envisions a great future for the country, he must not only redeem himself but he also has a duty to restore the Grand Old Party, the UNP, to its former glory. It may be the single largest party in Parliament today but the fact remains that since 2001 it hasn’t been able to win an election by itself: It was defeated at the general elections in 2004 and 2010 and in the presidential poll in 2005 while conceding the presidential elections in 2010 and 2015 to other candidates. So, it still has a long way to go and the burden of incumbency is already hurting its chances.

‘JR’ cultivated a strong second tier leadership comprising Premadasa, Lalith Athulathmudali, Gamini Dissanayake –and Ranil Wickremesinghe. That they began fighting with each other and were all wiped out by the Tamil Tigers is a different story. Wickremesinghe too has a responsibility to ensure that the UNP thrives after him, not only because he must leave a legacy but also because he owes it to the nation to ensure the continuity of the two party system of checks and balances, for haven’t we all seen how political parties behave when they have too much power and too many seats in Parliament?

Perhaps appropriately, a photographic exhibition held this week to commemorate Wickremesinghe’s political life is titled ‘Heta Dakina Ranil’ (or Ranil with a vision for tomorrow). Wickremesinghe would do well to take the title of that exhibition to heart with regard to both the country and his party. One wonders if pictures of the opening ceremony of that event tell a story because deposed minister Ravi Karunanayake hovers in the background, but Sajith Premadasa is not in the picture, literally and metaphorically though even Wickremesinghe’s one time rival, Chandrika Kumaratunga was among those present.

When the next national elections are held in 2020, Ranil Wickremesinghe will be seventy one years of age. Wickremesinghe knows that politics — in cricketing parlance — is not a game of T20 or even a one day international, it is a test match of the five day variety — not the type that Sri Lanka plays these days. In 1977, when J. R. Jayewardene at last tasted the spoils of his labours after decades of toil and became the nation’s undisputed leader, he too was seventy one years of age.

Surely, Ranil Wickremesinghe must be hoping that again, history will repeat itself?

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