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An SLFP Prime Minister Before Polls?

By N Sathiya Moorthy

The way the SLFP-UPFA Opposition is playing the UNP-led national government of which it is still a part round its fingers and at will and whim, indications are that the two could well end up changing places even before the much-promised and even more confused run-up to the parliamentary polls. The new SLFP dictum that seniors, including the Opposition Leader Nimal Siripala de Silva, would sign a no-trust motion against Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe & Co, would show that the de facto majority in the House wants to claim the de jure position, and lead a government during the parliamentary polls.

That the SLFP-UPFA team made the announcement after separate meetings with incumbent President Maithripala Sirisena and predecessor Mahinda Rajapaksa would indicate until denied by either or both that they too are on board. If President Sirisena in particular has been pushed into the hands of the other camp even while he had kept his own poll promise of making UNP’s Ranil the nation’s PM and also kept it the reasons and causes are tied to the other foot.

Whether or not the SLFP-UPFA threat materialises or whether or not, the government gets defeated in Parliament on that score, the coming days are going to be even more tentative than already. It is not unlikely that for the short term, the UNP leadership could try and sustain a majority by offering ministerial positions to more from the other side of the fence. But for most of those being offered positions, they need Sirisena for SLFP-UPFA nomination in the elections, and Rajapaksa for his and their own votes. The UNP can only be a spoiler for them over the middle and the long terms. If it were a parliamentary showdown ahead of the parliamentary polls, the role and contribution, if any, of the minority Tamil and Muslim parties would be watched keenly. That includes the Upcountry Tamils, too. The TNA votes in the presidential votes is one thing, their support for a leadership ahead of a tense parliamentary polls is another. They can spoil someone’s parliamentary poll broth, by supporting them in Parliament early on whatever be the short-term benefit, if at all. The Muslim parties and so could the Upcountry Tamils be divided and confused at the same time.

 

Who’s in charge?

The way the nation’s politics is being played out in these past months after the presidential polls, there is an ever-increasing question about who is in charge of the government and decision-making. Despite hopes, expectations and outright promises to the contrary, it looks as if the democratically-ousted President Mahinda Rajapaksa still seems to be calling the shots in more ways than one.

Barring the fact that he is no more the President of the Democratic Socialist Republic of Sri Lanka, and his family members and he himself have been inconvenienced one way or the other, the government seems to be setting its sextant, speedometer, barometer, et al, in the direction of President Rajapaksa or in the windward, speed and barometer that he desires it to be. In a way, he seems to have rights, no responsibilities, authority, not accountability. It is true Rajapaksa is not taking the formal decisions any more. Nor does he seem to be even remotely linked to the present-day decision-making apparatus. Yet, all major decisions of the Sirisena-Ranil twin-leadership aimed at inconveniencing the Rajapaksas seem end up as a convenient political tool to beat their perceived tormentors with. Between now and the much promised and even more publicised parliamentary polls, who knows, President Rajapaksa, if not Brothers Rajapaksas, may be  having his people eating out of his hand all over again.

Nothing explains the situation better than the way the government leadership’ (?) has gone about pushing the parliamentary polls to what seem to be the time and electoral environment of President Rajapaksa’s choosing. Having promised the dissolution of Parliament on the 100th day of Candidate Sirisena assuming office as President Sirisena, they set themselves the 23 April deadline for the purpose. Yet, April 23 is now more than a month back, and no one is talking about parliamentary polls in substantive way.

Instead, President Sirisena, egged on by Prime Minister Wickremesinghe or vice versa has been setting new deadlines for the polls. Now, we are told that Parliament will be dissolved in June and a new government under a new parliament would be in place by September. There is nothing to suspect otherwise not certainly the intention of the twin leadership, whose internal strains started showing almost on day one, and can only continue further and farther. Time was when the Rajapaksas were surprised and shocked, unable, though not unwilling, to get out of it all. That was also when some 25 of his SLFP-UPFA parliamentarians, unwilling and unable to do without the ministerial berths that they had grown comfortable with, declared their intention to support the government. Most of them even held a news conference the very day after Sirisena became President and Wickremesinghe became Prime Minister.

 

De facto and de jure, but

Not having thought about the day after’, the twin leadership lost the initiative. It also owed to President Sirisena’s own confusion over where to lead the SLFP-UPFA to, from where he had taken de facto charge first and de jure charge, not very long after. Today, President Sirisena is both the de facto and de jure leader of the SLFP-UPFA. Prime Minister Wickremesinghe is the de facto and de jure leader of the Government even while it runs in the name of The President.  Yet, it’s Percy Mahinda Rajapaksa who seems to be in control.

At the end of the presidential polls, the SLFP-UPFA continued to control Parliament. It does even now, so to say. The way four UPFA ministers quit the government recently shows that the minds of those who had joined the Ranil team under Sirisena’s care do not still seem to be putting their heart into it. They did not seem to be having their heart in it, either.

At last count, the Rajapaksa faction of the SLFP-UPFA, if it could be called so, commands the support of close to 100 of the 225 members in the outgoing Parliament.  On their first no-trust motion, which was not taken up, the UPFA claimed to have produced the signature of an uncontested number of 113 members against Interior Minister John Amaratunge.

Later, they had over 90 MPs signing up against Central Bank Governor Arjunan Mahendran. Now, they have an ambitious/over-ambitious publicised target of 130 parliamentarians backing a no-trust move against Prime Minister Wickremesinghe and his government.

It’s not about the victory or defeat of the no-trust motion, or even the proponents pressing the same for discussion and/or voting in Parliament. It’s more about the felicity and frequency with which the Rajapaksa faction has been able to initiate such moves and methods at will, no questions asked, no challenges answered, no thrown-gauntlets picked up. It’s no more about who controls SLFP-UPFA. It’s more about who controls Parliament directly, and the nation’s polity otherwise, too.

 

Rape and murder, fair game?

The situation on the ground and the desperation of the government and its leadership would be best described over the reaction/counter-reaction within the top notches of the nation’s Sinhala-Buddhist polity to the unpardonable rape and murder of teen-age Tamil school girl Vitdya in Poongudutivu in the Northern Province. Rajapaksa thought it fit to use the issue to flag his continuing concerns over the nation’s security viz possible revival of pro-LTTE sentiments, if not of the LTTE.

President Sirisena visited the North, met with Vidya’s family and scared students from many schools, in what seemed to be an effort at reassuring them and also the local administration. As government PM Wickremesinghe should/could be credited with despatching the police chief, who in turn, initiated disciplinary action against senior colleagues out there, who had mixed up or messed up, both the rape-murder investigation and also the subsequent street-protests. The latter in particular was the central piece of Rajapaksa’s criticism of the government, not even the continuing rape-murder of Tamils girls, long after he had demitted office, and/or the failed police investigation into the same under the care of his political detractors now in office.

Not stopping with it and not visiting the North for a first-hand assessment PM Wickremesinghe thought it even better to react to what essentially was a politically politicised statement, with a more personalised one of his own. At an official meeting in his prime ministerial office Temple Trees, Wickremesinghe came down heavily on Rajapaksa for what he claimed was politicisation of the issue. He went on to add that Rajapaksa owed an apology to the nation’s women. Both statements were in bad taste not because they were speaking about a Tamil girl’s dignity with no care or caution. They were so for just being made.

 

Not out of Opposition mode

Ironically, starting with President Sirisena for a brief time, but headed then and now by PM Ranil, the government leadership is unwilling and/or unable to get out of the decade-old Opposition mode.

Worse still, the UNP leader of the national government if it could still be called so, had kept relatively quiet on all the alleged wrong-doings of the Rajapaksa leadership when the latter was in power. Even now, what they are talking about is not what they might have dug deeper after coming to power. Much of what they are saying since is as unsubstantiated as can only be when they used to be in the Opposition.

It is not about whether the Rajapaksas had been right or wrong. It is not also about if the government leadership’s political statements on these issues are right or wrong. Instead, it’s all about the tendency of the UNP in particular to keep the Rajapaksas in the focus of everything around them, thus keeping them at the focus of national attention. By the time parliamentary elections became due, the government leadership would not have done anything for the voter on the street, anything substantial that he could touch, feel and appreciate.

It’s different from the elite voters, whose hunger for democracy, freedom and free space, has been fulfilled very substantially, since. It was achieved automatically, more through the Rajapaksas’ exit than with the advent of the new leadership at the helm.

That they have met their 19-A commitments halfway through cannot be over-looked, but it’s still a half-baked, half-way street. It’s another matter that the unaddressed part contains very many issues of greater concern to democracy and good governance has not bothered anyone – starting with the so-called urban elite, who continues to be after a form and not the substance, as has always been the case over the past very many decades.

 

Elections & Elections Commission

Today, when the parliamentary polls are held hostage to the promised/proposed 20-A, the independent Election Commission has reportedly come up with some words of wisdom, whose controversial content too has slipped attention. While talking about the feasibility and advisability of holding early polls under a new scheme, EC Deshapriya has reportedly mentioned issues pertaining to political stability.

Though unintentional, Deshapriya’s observations have shades of ‘majoritiarianism’ attaching to it.  In doing so, reports claimed that he had rejected the de-limitation proposals of the SLMC and CWC. It was the job of Parliament, and not the EC to undertake the task under a constitutional mandate unavailable to his office. If the EC has stepped in, and without anyone questioning it as yet, it’s not without reason or justification.

The EC initiatives/decisions of the kind are a reflection still of the confusion and contradiction that has been pulling a majority government that got a high 222/225 score for the passage of 19-A in Parliament. It’s also a reflection on the lethargy and directionless nature of the present government. As the old democratic adage goes, where there is a vacuum, existing or emerging, the stronger tools of governance step in, and fill in.

Yet, the talks about early parliamentary polls is centred not now on the fate of 20-A. Now, there is almost no talk on the subject. Instead, it’s now being flagged around the possibility of a no-trust move being moved against the government when Parliament meets after recess on June nine. It remains to be seen if President Sirisena is able to wield his silent influence on the SLFP-UPFA parliamentary part one more time, to go with him and get the government stay on in place before he is ready to dissolve the House and order fresh polls.

If instead, the government were to face the no-trust vote and lose it too, then it would be Rajapaksa back at the centre with fuller force than ever before since losing office. When he does not have to face the present Parliament, where he does not hold any position, but the voter, where he is still the single biggest vote-getter in the majority Sinhala community and polity, going back to the people, with or without a defeat for the government, would have made him more at ease. Which way the elections arrive this time, and who becomes the Initiator is what it has now boiled down to, too…

(The writer is Director, Chennai Chapter of the Observer Research Foundation, the multi-disciplinary, Indian public-policy think-tank, headquartered in New Delhi. Email: sathiyam54@gmail.com)

 

5 Comments for “An SLFP Prime Minister Before Polls?”

  1. One

    These think tanks journos with an eye on foreign jaunts and the whiskey are preaching to the french and germans but never to commonwealth nations.

    The human mind is charming in its unreasonableness, its inveterate prejudices, and its waywardness and unpredictability. That this mind eventually came to appreciate logic and a correct maths equation I consider a mere accident. Today we speak of `feeling` the truth rather than` thinking` it. It was created for sniffing food like all animals, like an octopus or star fish with tentacles, tentacles for `feeling the truth and eating it. The English have bad logic but very good tentacles in their brains for sensing danger and preserving life. The moment the Englishmen learn to reason and lose their strong confidence in themselves their power would collapse. Now look at their inventions even today the WWW and most games. When Liz needed pirates to protect the empire, she was able to produce enough pirates to meet the situation and glorified them.

  2. peiris

    A lot of talk and not enough action.It is beyond the capabilities of the current puppets.Mahinda must return to save Sri Lanka.Think about it.

  3. Jayalath

    If Pa can take the premier would give upper hand in the election but traitors like Sirisena will not allow it happen . I told this from the day one that Sirisena is the biggest threat to the PA and its future ,therefore every single person should line up to rise against him as soon as possible unless the consequences would be inevitable. Puppet Sirisena is going ahead to revenge from Sunil and others now ,which indicate how worst he can be , so ,clock is ticking to rise against this conspirator.

  4. Desapriya

    This writer too day dreaming like opposition MPs. Everybody understands that there’s no any possibility of changing PM without dissolving the parliament. PM is appointed by President and he says Wicramasingha is my PM. He understands what would be his position if others appoint their PM in place of his PM. All are dreaming and the President is in reality.

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