Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe convincingly won Wednesday’s battle; the motion of no-confidence against him, but the internecine war between the two coalition partners – the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) and the United National Party (UNP) – has worsened in its wake. For a second time, Wickremesinghe, at least for the moment, is in an [...]


PM now unassailable; national unity government to continue

Sirisena insists he played no role for or against the no-confidence motion; left with no option, President considers signing MoU with UNP for the rest of the term - President rejects UNP demand to dismiss SLFP ministers, state and deputy ministers, who voted against Ranil; questions as to who manipulated the gang of four to go ahead with the JO motion

Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe convincingly won Wednesday’s battle; the motion of no-confidence against him, but the internecine war between the two coalition partners – the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) and the United National Party (UNP) – has worsened in its wake.

Surrounded by jubilant UNP parliamentarians, Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe meets journalists outside the parliament chamber after he won a resounding victory at the vote on the no-confidence motion against him on Wednesday. Pic by Indika Haduwela

For a second time, Wickremesinghe, at least for the moment, is in an unassailable position. This is by his United National Front (UNF) winning 122 votes against the motion. Only 76 voted in favour and there were 26 absentees (who didn’t want to vote either way). The clear certification this time – he commanded the confidence of the majority of members in Parliament. The first occasion was when President Sirisena sought his resignation in the wake of the February 10 local polls results. The Premier declared that in terms of the 19th Amendment to the Constitution, he could not be removed by the President. Wickremesinghe has come to stay despite Sirisena’s wishes to seek a new Premier. That political reality dawned this week.

Challenges ahead
Yet, Wednesday’s victory notwithstanding, Wickremesinghe has a long, long way to go. He has at least three different challenges to surmount. One is the reforms within his own party to win back the grassroots level support base.

It remains eroded. This is amidst fears among party rank and file that some of his close associates may be named for top positions. This has been a cause for frustration particularly among young members. They accuse a cabal of close associates of directing affairs of the party and ‘guiding’ Wickremesinghe in the wrong direction. Yesterday the UNP parliamentary group and the Working Committee met at Temple Trees with Wickremesinghe in the chair. The subject of discussion was party reforms and how to move forward. Many members expressed different views. Ministers Mangala Samaraweera, Sarath Fonseka and Vajira Abeywardene urged that Wickremesinghe should continue both as leader of the UNP and remain as Prime Minister. This was accepted. An eleven member committee has been named to recommend structural changes to the Party. Since the term of key office bearers will expire on April 29, Wickremesinghe will make appointments to those positions. Whilst Minister Kabir Hashim is likely to be re appointed as Secretary, the name of Minister Thalatha Athukorale is being mentioned as the Chairman. The second would be gearing the party for a victory at the Provincial Council elections in September this year unless coalition leaders choose to put it off on ostensible grounds of delimitation or due to other reasons. The third and most important would be preparing the party for the presidential election due in 18 months, and thereafter the parliamentary elections. He would have to ensure the UNP receives more than the lowly 32.63 percent votes it obtained at the February local council elections. This is whilst remaining in a coalition where his wider powers to run matters relating to the economy have been clipped.

A noteworthy feature at the near 12-hour debate on the vote of no-confidence against the Premier was the acknowledgement by many UNP speakers that there had been shortcomings in the party. They wanted them rectified. Another was how with the exception of one carefully avoided any direct references to President Sirisena though adverse innuendos were galore.

Emboldened by the defeat of the no-confidence motion, Wickremesinghe, accompanied by a group of ministers met Sirisena the very next day — on Thursday night. There were heated exchanges. The first demand the UNP team made was for the removal of 16 SLFPers including ministers and deputy ministers who voted in favour of the no-confidence motion. The motion itself raised an important question – can anyone express no confidence through a motion over an MP exercising his or her right to vote in Parliament? After all, in this instance their leader has given them the right to do so too? To that extent the motion was flawed and is different from the position of the UNP leadership that the ministers and deputies among the 16MPs cannot serve under a Premier on whom they have no confidence. Mata eka karanna behe or “I cannot do that,” exhorted Sirisena. Among the UNP ministers present were Mangala Samaraweera, Malik Samarawickrema, Kabir Hashim, Thalatha Athukorale and Akila Viraj Kariyawasam Both Sirisena and Wickremesinghe agreed that the coalition should continue. However, the meeting was heated and inconclusive. More meetings are expected. This means a planned ministerial reshuffle on Thursday by Sirisena will be delayed beyond the National New Year. Until then, the uneasy arrangement will continue.

Sirisena argued that the sacking of the 16 SLFP MPs could not be done since that would weaken the SLFP. It appeared to be skewed logic. Here were a group within the Government that declared publicly that it had no confidence in the Prime Minister. Now the group wants to work with him. Obviously, for the greed of enjoying the perks of public office they do not want to resign, in keeping with the democratic traditions they faithfully preach. It also shows Sirisena’s hand in the no-confidence motion. The SLFP MPs seem to have had the confidence that their actions will not endanger their ministerial positions, should things go wrong, as they did. A group of UNP MPs, including Mujibur Rahman and Ashu Marasinghe, handed in a vote of no-confidence against these 16 MPs to Speaker Karu Jayasuriya. He was visibly angry. He pointed his finger at Minister Akila Viraj Kariyawasam and exhorted that in his speech in Parliament he had criticized him. Sirisena noted that he had been watching the debate on the no confidence motion on television and knew the words he uttered. When the meeting ended somewhat abruptly, Kariyawasam walked up to Sirisena, clasped his hands in “ayubowan” and said Mata Samawenna or forgive me. Angered by the move, Wickremesinghe directed that it be withdrawn immediately. It transpired that the party leadership has not given approval for this motion. That resonated on the motion of no-confidence on the Premier. It was allowed to go through by the SLFP leadership. He wants the “National Unity Government” to continue as it is, notwithstanding all the chaos.

Sirisena also raised issue with Premier Wickremesinghe and his ministers over the reported attack on Sirisa television offices and criticised the action. Sirasa was a stout supporter of Sirisena and takes a virulent anti-Wickremesinghe line. Sirisena said he did not endorse the Government resorting to measures the previous Rajapaksa administration took by carrying out attacks on media offices. He has ordered a full Police investigation.

Pro-Sirisena SLFP is divided
Earlier that Thursday morning, President Sirisena had two separate meetings — one with the 16 MPs who cast their votes in favour and the other with those who absented themselves. He told those who had voted in favour Ogollo kerapu dey hari. Api ekata inna oney or “what you have done is correct. We must stick together”. After all, Sirisena had officially allowed them a conscience vote. He said none of them should resign. Still, at least a group among those who voted for the motion are expected to sit in the Opposition benches. At a separate meeting, Sirisena also spoke to those who absented themselves from the vote.

He said that those who voted for the motion and those who absented themselves should now be united and work together. It is significant that those in the SLFP who absented themselves – they number more than half the SLFP MPs in the Government — did not share the view that the Premier should be removed – a task in which Sirisena once failed when he made a direct request to him to quit. Sirisena seems to not have consulted his own MPs at the time and it seems to have been a knee-jerk reaction to fix the blame on the Premier for the disastrous showing of his own party at the local council polls. Some of those who absented themselves (in effect, abstained) were not comfortable with Mahinda Rajapaksa and his ‘Joint Opposition’ taking the kudos for passing the motion. They feared Rajapaksa would have an increasing role thereafter in the affairs of the SLFP. They, in fact, had an estranged relationship. Then, there was one SLFP Cabinet minister, Mahinda Amaraweera, who lent his own Colombo official residence for preparatory meetings on the no-confidence motion. He abstained at the vote and was not present in Parliament. Another abstention came from Cader Masthan, UPFA Wanni District MP, who had even signed the motion.

There were others who genuinely did not want to offend Wickremesinghe. That highlighted the reality that the SLFP now stands further divided. Broadly, one lot was opposed to Wickremesinghe whilst the other favoured him. That it would set a serious poser for the SLFP too at the upcoming provincial council, presidential and parliamentary elections is no secret. After all, the SLFP’s vote base dropped to a mere 13 percent at the local polls. With growing acrimony with the UNP, would President Sirisena be ready with any cohesive plans for the SLFP to win, or would it face the fate of the left parties in the 1980s? This is just one of the serious drawbacks Sirisena has now inherited by painting himself further to a corner. Added to that is another reality. He or his side will no longer be in a position to continue a relationship with those in the ‘Joint Opposition.’ The failure of the no-confidence motion has shut the doors almost for good. In that sense, the no-confidence motion has further weakened the SLFP vis-a-vis the Joint Opposition. The real loser of the defeated motion is the SLFP, not the Joint Opposition.

JO’s blame game
In the public eye, however, that the no-confidence motion against the Premier failed was a slap in the face for the ‘Joint Opposition.’ Many of their leaders have been cocksure it would pass and made lofty pronouncements prior to the vote. The Pivithuru Hela Urumaya Leader Udaya Gammanpila made mathematical calculations of even “worst case scenarios” showing the motion being carried by seven votes. Afterwards, the prime movers in the ‘JO’ blamed the defeat by as many on the SLFP leadership for not being able to deliver their numbers. Even so, the motion would have been defeated on mathematical calculations because the UNF (106 seats) eventually stood together. Now, they are blaming a foursome in the SLFP — Minister S.B. Dissanayake, Deputy Speaker Thilanga Sumathipala, Minister Susil Premajayantha and State Minister Dilan Perera — for reportedly “misleading” them. “They kept on telling us they had the numbers and that a group in the UNP was backing them,” declared a senior ‘JO’ leader who did not wish to be identified. That the ‘Gang of Four’ wielded so much power to negotiate with the ‘JO’ is one thing. Another is the all-important question — who gave them the mandate on behalf of the SLFP? Who was the hidden hand? As they say, victory has many fathers but a defeat is an orphan. It has set an uneasy precedent for future events.

This notwithstanding, there were several spin offs to the ‘JO’s benefit. Whatever the reasons be, as a result of the motion, the SLFP stands further divided. Strangely one faction is against Premier Wickremesinghe whilst another is in his favour. Even if the 122 votes for the UNP has galvanised their parliamentarians into some new found unity, new issues have arisen with the SLFP. One such case is the UNP demand now to remove those who voted in favour of the no-confidence motion. Even if the no-confidence motion against the 16 SLFP MPs has been withdrawn, the issue remains. It has been raised with President Sirisena. He has replied that the matter would be taken up at his party’s Central Committee meeting tomorrow. Another aspect is the nationwide live television and radio coverage of the debate in Parliament. It did educate the public more on the Central Bank bond scam and other related issues. This is much more than the previous coverages the issues have received. Thus the news, both good and bad, have permeated to the grassroots level countrywide as much of the country was riveted to the live proceedings throughout Wednesday on radio and tv.

Minister S.B. Dissanayake flanked by Ministers Susil Premajayantha, John Seneviratne, Anura Priyadarshana Yapa and Dayasiri Jayasekera addressing a news conference on Wednesday in the Parliament complex in the aftermath of the defeat of the no-confidence motion which they supported. The UNP is now demanding that they be removed from the cabinet, but the President is not in agreement. Pic by Amila Gamage

Rajapaksa’s take on NCM
Asked to comment on the origins of the no-confidence motion, the Joint Opposition de facto leader Mahinda Rajapaksa, threw some light on the background to it during an interview with the Sunday Times. He said, “The first initiative for a no-confidence motion against the Prime Minister came from UNP members. The SLFP took over. We spoke to President Maithripala Sirisena. That was not only me. He even sent his men to speak to us. We were convinced from the dialogue that they had the endorsement of the President. They told us to extend our support and they would raise the remaining numbers. We did so. As I said last week, our people signed the motion and it was up to the President thereafter. Our people had discussions with the Government. These talks were initiated by those in the Government. We helped since they sought our support. However, we made clear we would not accept any positions including ministries.”

However, Sirisena told a news conference on Friday, “There have been different views about the no-confidence motion. Some have made me a part of the issue. Some say I supported it while others say I did not.” He said that the Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP), a section of the SLFP and a section of the UNP collectively had agreed on the no-confidence motion. He added, “The UPFA group in Parliament, acting as Opposition members, also met me. They said they could prove a majority and name a new Prime Minister. I told them to prove their majority in accordance with the provisions of the Constitution so I could act upon it. You are now well aware of the no-confidence motion.”

Underscoring the SLFP divide were two news conference on Thursday, just the day after the no-confidence motion was defeated. At both events, those who took part made clear President Sirisena had no hand in the no-confidence motion.

The one representing those who absented themselves was chaired jointly by Ministers Mahinda Samarasinghe, Sarath Amunugama and Vijith Vijithamuni de Soysa. They emphasised that the no-confidence motion was not discussed at either the Parliamentary Group of the SLFP or its Central Committee, as revealed in these columns. The other was chaired by those who voted for the motion viz., official Government spokesperson and Minister Dayasiri Jayasekera, Minister Chandima Weerakody and State Minister Dilan Perera.

Samarasinghe said, “We voted or abstained based on the freedom that was given. Whatever happened at the vote, our aim is to work together as a group to strengthen the hands of the President and the SLFP. I don’t believe we need to take disciplinary action against anyone.” He said that the President had told the 41 MPs of the SLFP led UPFA parliamentary group to arrive at a consensus among them over the vote. “We could not do that”, he added.
Minister Amunugama declared that the day before the motion was debated, the President called a meeting of the SLFP parliamentary group. “He told us whatever happens to the NCM, as the leader of the country, he will have to continue to rule from April 5 (the day after the motion was debated)”. He added that the President could not take a side and does not wish to get involved. He asked us to take a collective decision.

“When you analyse the final result”, Amunugama asserted, “you will see the majority of the SLFP MPs in the Government decided to abstain. Aside from the CWC leader Arumugam Thondaman and Muthu Sivalingam who are part of the UPFA, we have 39 SLFP MPs. The majority, i.e. 23 of them, chose to abstain whilst 16 voted for the motion.”

At the other news conference by those SLFPers who voted in favour, Minister Dayasiri Jayasekera made clear, “the President did not tell us to bring a vote of no-confidence against the Prime Minister. However, we discussed the matter and kept him informed about the decision. There were UNP members backing the move. The defeat of the motion is not an impediment for the continuation of the ‘National Government’.

Views expressed at the two different news conferences varied except for one fact — that President Sirisena was not in any way involved in the no-confidence motion. Even President Sirisena said so at his own news conference on Friday morning. In essence, by dissociating himself from the no-confidence motion, Sirisena was now sending a new message, more clearly to the UNP, that he was not associated with the motion and was ready to continue the coalition. For the same reason, he has even put off the ‘major’ cabinet reshuffle he declared he would carry out on Thursday. That way Sirisena now makes clear it was all the others who were responsible.

In fairness to him, Sirisena refrained from making any public comments over the motion. Yet, questions arise whether he did acquiesce by his not taking up a position as leader of the SLFP with those promoting the motion thus paving the way for a debate in Parliament last Wednesday. One may argue this is part of the democratic principles Sirisena believes in. However, if he did not want the motion to see the light of day, all he had to do was forbid his SLFPers from associating themselves from the day the motion was conceived. This is more so since Wickremesinghe is his Prime Minister. The fact that he had already asked his PM on February 11 to resign gave an impetus to the co-conspirators to oust the PM. For Sirisena, that would have not only saved another split in the SLFP but also would not have placed himself in a worst political predicament — neither does the UNP nor the JO trust him now. As a result, he has created more suspicions in his coalition partner, the UNP. That suspicion exacerbates in the public mind when he continues to dissociate himself from the botched move to oust his PM.

Such suspicions have also been further heightened after an SLFP parliamentary group meeting last Monday chaired by Sirisena. Various views were expressed but Sirisena declared “don’t involve me. You all take a decision. I am not a party.” They adopted a resolution unanimously that they should appeal to Premier Wickremesinghe to resign. It was an early indication that the motion didn’t have the adequate numbers to be carried. It was therefore a case of who will bell the cat. A handful were hesitant and the task fell on Minister Nimal Siripala de Silva, senior Deputy Leader of the SLFP. At one time he was touted to be the new Prime Minister-in-waiting. Eventually, even he absented himself at the vote.

When the weekly Cabinet meeting on Tuesday ended, UNP ministers including the Premier were asked to stay behind. Somewhat hesitantly de Silva spoke as Premier Wickremesinghe and his ministers listened. “We are not against you personally,” Minister de Silva declared and added that “the SLFP parliamentary group has decided that he (the Premier) should resign. “Why do you want this,” asked UNP Minister John Ameratunga. Siripala de Silva was followed by colleague Lakshman Seneviratne. When question after question was posed, Siripala de Silva replied “let us not discuss this. I have been tasked only to pass this message.” That ended the conversation. He was the mere postman delivering a letter.

Both, the decision to urge the Premier to quit and the call by Nimal Siripala de Silva who delivered it seemed bizarre for a coalition. Quite clearly it went beyond the mandate of a parliamentary group, if indeed there was one, to choose whether their partner in governance should go. That was the sole prerogative of the President who is the party leader. He could have chosen to break off the relationship and sought endorsement from the parliamentary group and even the Central Committee, the main policy making body. That such a decision and an appeal had been made amounted to some form of intimidation and even political blackmail – wait for the no-confidence motion and you will lose. So, it is better you resign now, seems to be the call. But the fact of the matter was that the SLFP couldn’t muster the numbers. This, no doubt, is the darkest chapter in the entire episode involving the no-confidence motion against the Premier. The full power of the SLFP side of the Government was used with no avail, even though many were reluctant to back the call. Here again, at whose behest was this carried out?

The Tamil factor
Also on Monday, ahead of the debate on the no-confidence motion, Sirisena met a delegation led by Premier Wickremesinghe and including senior ministers. The meeting was to appeal to him to ask the SLFP parliamentarians to pull out from the no-confidence motion exercise. During the discussion, Sirisena was to point out that the UNP seeking the support of the Tamil National Alliance (TNA) for supporting the motion would not augur well in the south. There was a sharp retort from Minister Mangala Samaraweera who pointed out that Sirisena would not have won the presidential election if not for the support of Tamils including those in the North.

When the news spread of his remarks, particularly in Tamil areas, there was embarrassment for Sirisena. Tamil diaspora groups were critical. He sought a meeting with TNA leader Rajavarothayam Sampanthan. He was to offer an explanation but the Tamil leader was to explain that the alliance would vote against the motion. Sirisena told Wickremesinghe during the meeting that whatever the outcome of the no-confidence motion was, he planned to effect a major re-shuffle of Cabinet Ministers on what he called a ‘scientific basis’ on Thursday. On Tuesday morning, ahead of the weekly ministerial meeting, Sirisena again met Premier Wickremesinghe. He explained that it was not possible for him to stop SLFP MPs from backing the no-confidence motion since they were doing it on their own.

Then, on Tuesday night, Sirisena met another group of SLFP parliamentarians including ministers at his residence. They were there to convey their decision to abstain from voting. Sirisena noted that there were two options, either to vote or not and declared they could decide on their own. When the meeting was under way, Ministers S.B. Dissanayake and Susil Premjayantha walked in. Dissanayake broke the news that they did not have the numbers to seek the passage of the motion in Parliament. That was the first formal news that the no-confidence motion was doomed to fail. It was Dissanayake, Premjayantha, Thilanga Sumathipala and Dilan Perera who were at the forefront of the SLFP and had boasted earlier to their colleagues that the motion was as good as being passed.

At the news conference of those who voted for the motion, Minister Chandima Weerakody, said, “At a parliamentary group meeting we decided first to call for the resignation of the Prime Minister. Thereafter, on the day of the no-confidence motion (Wednesday), we met at Minister Amaraweera’s residence. SLFP General Secretary Duminda Dissanayake too was present. There, we decided that we should vote for the motion. We informed the UPFA and SLFP Secretaries to inform President Sirisena of this decision.” Yet, both Ministers Amaraweera and Dissanayake also abstained from voting.
“Some of them are campaigning to get us removed. This is not a UNP Government. It is a consensus one. We are ready to quit, if the President wants us to do so,” declared State Minister Dilan Perera at the same news conference.

The planned cabinet reshuffle is off, at least for the time being. The first task for Sirisena now is to name a committee together with Wickremesinghe to formulate a programme of work for the remaining tenure of the Government. He appears to have now made up his mind to go along with Premier Wickremesinghe. He has run out of options. In doing so, whether the two sides could sign a new Memorandum of Understanding is also being looked at. It is only thereafter that Sirisena plans to effect a Cabinet reshuffle on a ‘scientific basis’.

He told Friday’s news conference that “I have called for a Central Committee meeting (on Monday)” to discuss the future functioning of the Government. It is the Central Committee which decided on a time frame (two years) when the SLFP and the UNP first teamed up together. He said “therefore, this decision too should be made by them.” In other words, the CC will determine whether the SLFP wants to continue with a ‘National Government’ for the remaining period. Sirisena underscored that likelihood when he declared that “the Government has to be strong. My plea to them (the UNP) is to make it stronger. That is my policy. There are problems that arise, but we need to think of the public and the country. Strengthening the Government is the important factor.” A senior ‘JO’ member quipped somewhat sarcastically that the situation was similar to the Sinhala adage Kapanna beri atha imbinawa wuna or had to kiss the hand that could not be cut off. Eya athwal apita Nidahas Paksheyeth thiyanawa or we have those hands in the Freedom Party too, quipped a UNPer who heard of the remarks.

That the current political stalemate will thus continue beyond the upcoming holiday season only adds to the prevailing uncertainty. In such situation, time is an important factor but those at the helm seem little worried.

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