“And so, Houdini did it again” said a wise old lawyer referring to the Austro-Hungarian-born American illusionist and magician noted for his sensational escape acts, no sooner Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe defeated a no-confidence motion against him in Parliament on Wednesday. Arguably, no Sri Lankan politician has had to face so many challenges to his [...]


Local Houdini does it again


“And so, Houdini did it again” said a wise old lawyer referring to the Austro-Hungarian-born American illusionist and magician noted for his sensational escape acts, no sooner Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe defeated a no-confidence motion against him in Parliament on Wednesday.
Arguably, no Sri Lankan politician has had to face so many challenges to his leadership, both of his party and the country – and surmounted them to be where he is today as this Premier has.

The no-confidence motion spearheaded by a section of the Joint Opposition (JO) backfired on them. Carried away by the February 10 local council election results, the JO failed to realise that Parliament’s numbers were a different ball game. The divisions within the mainstream SLFP headed by President Maithripala Sirisena were not a mirage, they were for real.

The JO’s eagerness to exploit the disillusionment in the UNP rank and file and the divisions within the coalition partners of the National Unity Government resulted in just the opposite – the UNP closing ranks and the SLFP within the National Unity Government splitting still further. The blame game is now on for having frittered away the momentum the JO gained from February 10 and in the process, reinvigorated an otherwise demoralised UNP.

President Sirisena cut a sorry figure in this drama. He faced justifiable criticism in Parliament on Wednesday – and in the country as well, for shooting his Prime Minister in the back. He tried to cover his tracks and wriggle out of culpability for his tacit backing of the motion, but the whereabouts of the smoking gun could be seen. When he realised a formidable section of his own party was not willing to hold hands with the JO in an exercise that was patently political in nature, he backpedalled, and sat on the Palace fence and like Humpty Dumpty had a great fall. Now he faces the wrath of the JO for not delivering; a second, nay third time they had been let down by him.

There was no question that the minority parties were going to vote against the motion. They have not made up with the JO yet. It only provided them an opportunity to raise their stakes and make further demands on the Government. The JO expected some UNP MPs, unhappy with the way they have been treated by the UNP hierarchy to vote for the motion. The JO didn’t bargain for the number of the President’s men who would refuse to support the motion.

The fact that the Prime Minister was able to muster 122 votes of a 225 member House shows that he can form his own Government if he so chooses.
There is now a call for those SLFP MPs, including ministers and deputies who voted for the motion to resign if they have no confidence in their own Government. But they have Rhino-like skins. The Prime Minister is being asked to show no magnanimity because it was they who were dragging this National Unity Government down from day one as fifth columnists pressuring the President to act the way he did, and to be rolled over by that pressure – undermining not only the PM and the UNP, but eventually his own Government. Another record for the Guinness Books.

But make no mistake, the President has not always been wrong. His insistence on having the former Governor of the Central Bank removed; his refusal to allow an international war crimes tribunal under the UNHRC resolution among other interventions were no doubt in the national interest. However, he has been an impediment as well to an efficient Government machinery complicated by two political parties with divergent economic philosophies. The two opposing parties in the same team have not been able to find that via-media towards joint collaboration.

From all accounts the economy is taking a beating due to the prevalent political instability. As the President told the media on Friday, this year has been consumed by election campaigns for local councils, followed by the carnage in Kandy and then the no-confidence motion. A drought is imminent.
The tax net is to be widened to increase direct taxes. The perfidious promises of the JO that it will reverse these taxes are typical. The Government’s boast that last year had the highest Foreign Direct Investments (FDIs) fails to mention that the Chinese cheque for Hambantota port was part of the reason.

It looks though, like the Government is also ready to go flat out to neutralise the JO by accelerating corruption investigations against its frontliners and using special courts to dish out the punishment. Its bid to give the Justice Minister powers so far vested with the Chief Justice was a wrong step in the right direction to speed up stalled probes.

In Parliament during Wednesday’s debate, both sides threw mud, calling the other “hora” (rogue) and murderer. The sad part was that these allegations and counter-allegations were one big joke for the Parliamentarians, almost as if this was all part and parcel of the sleazy politics of our times.
Discounting the motives behind the motion against the PM being a political putsch at dismantling an elected Government through a Parliamentary coup, the fact remains that the perpetrators of the Central Bank bond scam need to be brought to justice – and soon.

A new Constitution and a new political culture seem highly unlikely in the current political environment. Whether it is a Parliamentary or Presidential system, Sri Lanka is still rooted in Western style democracy. Much has been said, and critiqued, about the Chinese model where their President was recently ensconced for life. That system is, however, not based on a leader’s showmanship, a pre-requisite in Western democracies. It is dangerous to advocate Chinese style one-party rule but it is also a system based on “selection and election” – not everyone is elected to high office. Many are selected. There’s recognition for merit and hard work – a meritocracy of sorts, and they are inducted to public office.

In Sri Lanka, the 1948 Constitution provided for Appointed MPs mainly to represent the minorities and the 1978 Constitution expanded that to National List MPs to absorb high value persons to adorn the Legislature, only for that List to be abused by political leaders. The Choksys and Kadirgamars and only a few others were the stand out exceptions.

From the Cambridge Analytica fallout we find Western think-tanks have correctly identified that in democracies, emotional issues play a more significant role at elections, than do facts. That is something the UNP can take note of.

Promised reforms within the UNP are an internal matter for the party to resolve. But one piece of unsolicited advice would be to appoint a chairman and general secretary who are not Ministers or MPs, but those who can be wholly committed to party work. They can take a cue from their mentor J.R. Jayewardene who ran one of the best oiled party machineries of recent times.

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