National Government And Other Wedge Issues
The government said on Wednesday that it would present a motion to Parliament that day for forming a national government. The Opposition let out a howl of protest. The motion was not submitted as stated. The government apparently got cold feet. However, its plan is far from abandoned.
There is no way the UNF can form a national government in the constitutionally prescribed manner without securing the support of at least two parties represented in Parliament. The Constitution has clearly defined the national government: ‘National Government means a Government formed by the recognized political party or the independent group which obtains the highest number of seats in Parliament together with the other recognized political parties or the independent groups.’
There are six parties in Parliament including the UNF. The UPFA has refused to join a national government again. The TNA is wary of joining the government; it wants to exercise power without responsibility. Forming an alliance with the UNP as a partner is the last thing the JVP wants. The EPDP has ruled out the possibility of forging an alliance with the UNP. Nor will the TNA allow the UNP to have the EPDP as a partner because it does not want EPDP leader Douglas Devenanda to be a minister and expand his vote base in the North. So, the UNF is now left with only the SLMC.
The SLMC can join the UNF to form a national government though it is being claimed, in some quarters, that it is part of the government. Technically, it is a separate party in Parliament. It went it alone in some areas at the last general election, obtained one seat and became part of the national government that collapsed after the UPFA’s pullout last October. The UNP and the SLMC will have to rope in another party to be able to form a national government.
The government seems to fear that its opponents will try to defeat its budget to be presented next month, and the only way to ward off that threat is to engineer some more defections from the Opposition by offering ministerial posts after forming a national government. This fear is unfounded. If push comes to shove for the government, the JVP, which wants the present administration to continue, will abstain when the budget is put to the vote, thus depriving the Opposition of six votes; the Opposition’s loss will be the government’s gain.
What one gathers from the government’s frantic efforts to increase the number of ministers and consolidate its power in Parliament by forming a national government is that the Opposition MPs, whom it is trying to lure into joining its ranks, are demanding ministerial portfolios besides other things to switch their allegiance. The government and the Opposition are accusing each other of bribing the MPs to the tune of at least half a billion rupees to induce crossovers. The UNF’s attempt to expand the Cabinet and increase the number of other ministers is also an indictment on the ordinary UNF MPs, for the impression the people get is that they are so greedy for positions that they might break ranks unless they are appointed ministers.
How the government proposes to circumvent the aforesaid constitutional hurdle in its path remains to be seen.
The yahapalana government got into trouble, at the very beginning of its rule, in 2015, because it undertook to bite off more that it could chew; it promised a massive pay hike for the public sector. The desperation of the then UNP-led Opposition to secure the presidency was such that it was ready to promise anything to realise its goal. After President Maithripala Sirisena’s victory, it had to make good on that promise as it wanted to win the general election which came a few months later. The pay hike, coupled with the slashing of fuel prices, had a devastating impact on the economy, and the government had to borrow from foreign sources for consumption and development projects which were already underway had to be halted for want of funds. Debt servicing also took a big bite out of the government revenue so much so that the state assets had to be divested and unnecessary problems cropped up due to the leasing of the Hambantota Port to the Chinese.
Now, the government, in a desperate bid to retain power and win future elections, is going to undertake something that will aggravate its woes further. It is playing Santa by throwing money around in the form of soft loans sans collateral under the Gamperaliya programme. It is also expected to present an election budget. It seems to be labouring under the delusion that it can regain the lost ground on the political front by granting relief to the people. But such election-oriented measures usually do not help dupe the voting public, for the people are aware that it will be swings and roundabouts for them after elections. Nor can a sudden increase in development spending help a government better its electoral performance vis-à-vis a formidable Opposition. A government ruins is chances of winning elections by postponing them.
Debate on bond commission and PRECIFAC reports
This week has seen a government attempt to intensify its propaganda attacks on the UPFA and the former ruling family. The first salvo was fired by TNA MP M. A. Sumanthiran, who demanded action against those named in the PRECIFAC (Presidential Commission of Inquiry to Investigate and Inquire into Serious Acts of Fraud) report. On Tuesday, waxing eloquent, in Parliament, on the need to rid the country of corruption and punish the corrupt, he called for the implementation of the recommendations in the PRECIFAC report without further delay.
Moving a motion for a debate on the PRECIFAC report, Sumanthiran pointed out that the commission had revealed transgressions of serious nature in 34 state institutions, and the culprits had been named. He said that no action had been taken against them though one year had elapsed. He is reported to have said: “After the lapse of one full year, no meaningful steps have been taken to apprehend and punish those responsible and I move that the government take immediate steps to implement the said recommendations in the report and take decisive action to punish those responsible without any further delay.”
On Wednesday, Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe, taking part in the debate, said that action had been taken in respect of the Treasury bond scams. Similar action was called for against those named in the PRECIFAC as well, he said. State Minister of Finance Eran Wickremaratne stressed the need for probing irregularities in Treasury bond issuances since 1990 and called for implementing the recommendations in the PRECIFAC report.
UPFA MP Wimal Weerawansa claimed the losses that the country had suffered due to the bond scams were far in excess of those due to the alleged offences mentioned in the PRECIFAC report. This is likely to be the position the UPFA-SLFP will adopt on the issue in the run-up to the elections.
If the government has taken up the delay in implementing the PRECIFAC recommendations by way of a counterblast to the criticism it has come under from the Opposition over the bond scams, its move will prove counterproductive. The main suspect in the bond scams, former Central Bank Governor Arjuna Mahendran, is still at large and the government will come under increasing pressure in the coming months to bring him back to stand trial. Perhaps, the UNP wants to stop the SLPP from flogging the issue of bond scams by taking up the PRECIFAC report, but it will not be able to prevent President Sirisena from doing so. There lies the rub. Sirisena will gain from the UNP and the SLPP trading allegations.
Duminda drives in the wedge
The coming together of the SLFP and the SLPP has not been to the liking of a section of the SLFP’s old guard. Some SLFP organisers seem to fear that the newly formed alliance spells doom for their political careers in that the SLPP will gobble up what remains of their party. Their fear is not totally unfounded. Some of them have apparently switched their allegiance to former President Chandrika Bandaranaike, whose sympathies are, now, with the UNP. So, it is only natural that they are thought to have had a hand in the resolution passed by the SLFP branch in Anuradhapura, the other day, demanding that President Sirisena be fielded as the SLFP’s presidential candidate. They have driven in the wedge! SLFP National Organiser Duminda Dissanayake, who is not well disposed towards the Rajapaksas, is said to have been behind that move. He has not rejected that allegation. He is loyal to Kumaratunga.
President Sirisena wants to seek a second term and expects the SLPP to back his candidature. The latter has within its ranks several persons who have presidential ambitions. Former Defence Secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa has already thrown his hat into the ring in a bid to beat others to it. But he cannot rest assured that his candidature will be endorsed by the SLPP as well as the UPFA even if he manages to relinquish his US citizenship and win the ongoing court case against him. Unless the UPFA and the SLPP manage to nominate a candidate and work together to ensure his victory, the UNP will be at an advantage at the next presidential election because the SLFP vote will be spilt again. So, causing a rift in the UPFA-SLPP alliance, which has not yet gelled properly at the grassroots level, seems to be the battle plan of the SLFP rebels loyal to Kumaratunga.
Never say die
Odds are stacked against President Sirisena where his chances of being fielded as the common candidate of the UPFA and the SLPP are concerned. It is highly unlikely that the Rajapaksas will agree to back any one other than a member of their family in the presidential fray. They smoked the peace pipe with Sirisena last year not out of any love for him; that was the only way they could further their interests; they wanted to weaken the UNP. But Sirisena does not want to give up. He is doing everything in his power to remain a force to be reckoned with in a bid to win over the public. He has embarked on some campaigns to achieve that end, his fight against narcotics and crime being one.
The UNP and its allies expected President Sirisena to act like the late President D. B. Wijetunga, who retired after serving his first term. That they made a big miscalculation is now manifestly clear. Their biggest mistake was to undermine President Sirisena’s authority to the point of driving him to mend fences with the Rajapaksas to launch a counterattack. He is now in a position to fight back with all UPFA MPs, save a few who have crossed over backing him. The Joint Opposition (JO) has stopped being critical of him. Whoever would have thought it would back Sirisena.
The President’s anti-narcotic campaign has yielded impressive results with the STF and the Police Narcotic Bureau conducting successful raids. The successful raid in Dubai, where notorious drug lord Madush was arrested together with several other criminals is something the President can preen himself on. If he can sustain the momentum of the anti-crime operations, the public will be grateful to him and his popularity ratings will rise. Each and every parent fears for the safety of his or her children, given the proliferation of narcotics and the prevalence of crimes.
The UNP has failed to fulfil its pledges and is afraid of facing elections. Corruption which it promised to eliminate continues to thrive. Some of its big guns stand accused of malpractices and shielding lawbreakers. There is no war for the Rajapaksas to fight and, therefore, they will find it difficult to market their brand of patriotism to win elections at the national level. There are also very serious allegations against them and speedy trials are going on against them. President Sirisena has taken upon himself the task of fighting against social evils. Any other lame-duck president would have given up by now. Whether he will be able to realise his dreams remains to be seen, but he is not likely to drop out of the race. This is a worrisome proposition for the SLPP.