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Game of cat and mouse between President and PM continues

6 March 2018 - 603   - 0

Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe coming out of a special prayer offering at Kataragama, south Sri Lanka told the waiting provincial journalists he had gone to seek the blessings of the Gods to protect his job as leader of the United National Party (UNP) and the premiership. Mr. Wickremesinge is known for his whacky sense of humour and sported a smirk on his face when he made the remark.

By Arthul Ratnasinghe

Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe coming out of a special prayer offering at Kataragama, south Sri Lanka told the waiting provincial journalists he had gone to seek the blessings of the Gods to protect his job as leader of the United National Party (UNP) and the premiership. Mr. Wickremesinge is known for his whacky sense of humour and sported a smirk on his face when he made the remark. But it is no joke. Mr. Wickremesinghe who turns 69 later this month is under intense pressure from within his party to relinquish the party leadership and hand it over to someone who will be the party's candidate at the next presidential election in 2020. He is also under pressure from the President Maithripala Sirisena to quit as his PM.


Opposition MPs claim that a No Confidence Motion is to be introduced today against the Prime Minister with 14 charges. The aim of the motion is to permit the President to dismiss the PM on the basis that Mr. Wickremesinghe has lost the confidence of Parliament.

While Mr. Wickremesinghe is no stranger to moves to oust him from the party leadership - he's faced several palace coups, and he was deprived once of the premiership by a President dissolving parliament (2004) ahead of its full term, his heir apparent in the party nor his replacement as PM is known.
There are no obvious choices for either job.
In Sri Lanka's Grand Old Party, the UNP the one- time challenger Sajith Premadasa has publicly made no moves to show he's interested in ousting Mr Wickremesinghe. Officially designated Deputy Leader he has seen off an Assistant Leader in former Finance Minister Ravi Karunanayaka, a casualty in the Central Bank bond scam.
 Mr. Karunanayaka's criticism is no longer aimed at Mr. Premadasa but at the UNP chairman Malik Samarawickrama. Mr. Premadasa, now Minister of Housing, once bitten is studiously keeping away from the internal pressure coming from the young bucks in the party to oust Mr. Wickremesinghe.
No one is rooting for Mr. Premadasa either - not openly leaving the field wide open in the event Mr. Wickremesinghe steps down or is forced to do so.
One the frontline critics of Mr. Wickremesinghe's leadership is deputy foreign minister Vasantha Senanayake from the Senanayake clan that were UNP leaders of yesteryear. He says that Mr. Wickremesinghe doesn't listen to the younger members of the party and "we will have to clean his ears".
Asked the pertinent question who will replace Mr. Wickremesinghe, he went as far as saying there are so many to choose from - in the cabinet, deputy and state ministers and even backbenchers.
The party's parliamentary group meets today (Tuesday) and Mr. Wickremesinghe is bound to be dogged with this pressure group calling for his ouster. One option is for him to be Senior Leader Lee Kuan Yew style and pass the baton to a successor. Except that unlike Mr. Lee he doesn't have a son if he does that.
The UNP is displaying signs of panic already with a presidential election campaign to start late next year. Their vote bank is at best hovering in the 40 percent region and will look for the minority's Tamil and Muslim votes to get them across the 50 per cent bar. That is, of course, easier said than done.
President Sirisena is not without his own problems. Having come a poor third with a miserable 13 per cent of the popular vote for his party, the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) at the recent local council polls, he is trying to save his skin by realigning with his one-time comrades now with the SLPP (Sri Lanka People's Party).
 That is the demand of those party seniors who backed him when he jumped ship to challenge the formidable Rajapaksa presidency in 2015 - with UNP support.
 Having said he will send "those crooks" not only to jail but to hell as well for their corrupt activities, Mr. Sirisena had a secret meeting with former President Mahinda Rajapaksa late last month at a businessman's house in Colombo.
While no details of the meeting have emerged it is an open secret that the President has cut loose his anchorage with his Prime Minister. Having failed in asking him to step down, he now wants the CCEM (Cabinet Committee for Economic Management) which the PM presides over disbanded and its business taken over by the NEC (National Economic Council) which he presides over.
 Mr. Rajapaksa says his SLPP will support the SLFP under Mr. Sirisena conditionally. This he explains is on issues like stopping the continued privatization of state ventures and withdrawing the co-sponsorship of the Geneva UNHRC  resolution on war crimes inquiries. But everyone knows the main condition - not publicly stated, is to halt the corruption investigations on him and his family.
Prime Minister Wickremesinghe is now trying to expose the President as being the one who is going slow on corruption investigations on the Rajapaksa family an off-quoted pledge of the President.
The UNP has asked that war-winning Army Commander Sarath Fonseka be put in charge of the police as Minister of Law and Order. General Fonseka loves to hate the Rajapaksas for putting him behind bars on trumped up charges but in fact for daring to challenge the former President at the 2010 presidential election.
President Sirisena is refusing to make the appointment. For someone who has been complaining that police investigations on the Rajapaksas are too slow, he has not given reasons for not appointing Gen. Fonseka.
The cat and mouse game between the President and Prime Minister continues. How they both must be envying the Chinese Communist Party decision to make Xi Jinping, their leader for Life.

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