Sirisena In A Scissor Hold?

Vishvanath

The Supreme Court (SC) verdict that the dissolution of Parliament is unconstitutional has sent President Maithripala Sirisena reeling. It is heartening that the judgment was unanimous. The President and appointed Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa, who has been restrained by the Court of Appeal from functioning in his post, will have to make a major course correction.

The UNP fired another shot across the bows of its rivals on Wednesday. It comfortably secured the passage of a motion, expressing the confidence of the majority of MPs in ousted Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe. The result came as no surprise.

One has lost count of the motions the UNP and its fellow travellers passed in Parliament against the government during the last few weeks. Yesterday’s motion was backed by as many as 117 MPs including those representing the TNA save one. The JVP abstained, for obvious reasons, and the UPFA boycotted Parliament.

This is not the first time the TNA has leapt to Wickremesinghe’s defence. It was instrumental in defeating the motion of no confidence, which some SLFP ministers in the yahapalana government moved against him in April. That move had the blessings of President Sirisena, who, however, got cold feet at the eleventh hour and allowed a conscience vote for his MPs. He knew that even if all UPFA MPs were to vote against Wickremesinghe, en bloc, the UNP, with the help of the TNA, would still be able to torpedo the no-faith motion. Thus, the TNA’s support became a game changer of sorts.

Way back in 2001, when the UNP failed to secure an absolute majority in Parliament in spite of winning the highest number of seats (109) at a general election, the TNA assured Ranil of its support.

The then President Chandrika Kumaratunga, who was hostile to the UNP, was left with Hobson’s choice, as a result. She had only 77 seats and had to appoint Wickremesinghe Prime Minister and a Cabinet of his choice; she even had to let go of the much-coveted defence portfolio in a bid to facilitate a French style cohabitation, which, however, did not work.

Ranil as TNA’s choice

Wickremesinghe had, in the run-up to the 2001 general election, made known his intention of entering into a ceasefire with the LTTE in the event of a UNP government being formed. The TNA, which was doing the LTTE’s bidding at that time, wanted to create conditions for initiating a peace process and, therefore, Ranil, who was considered a dove responsive to international pressure, became its choice as the PM.

On Wednesday, December 12, a vote of confidence in Ranil Wikcremesinghe to function as Prime Minister was passed in parliament. The motion won the backing of the TNA. Picture shows Ranil Wickremesinghe and TNA Leader R Sambanthan in Parliament.
On Wednesday, December 12, a vote of confidence in Ranil Wikcremesinghe to function as Prime Minister was passed in parliament. The motion won the backing of the TNA. Picture shows Ranil Wickremesinghe and TNA Leader R Sambanthan in Parliament.

The LTTE declared a ceasefire towards the end of 2001 and negotiations commenced the following year. The UNP-led UNF stood accused of appeasing the LTTE and compromising national security. President Kumaratunga sacked that government in 2004, and the rest is history.

The TNA is now backing Ranil because he was instrumental in initiating the ongoing process of drafting a new Constitution, which is expected to devolve more power to the provinces. No sooner had the TNA voted for Wednesday’s motion than a jubilant Ranil reaffirmed his commitment to making a new Constitution and finding a political solution, through it, in an undivided country. That assurance may have gone down well with the TNA and its supporters, but Ranil’s problem would be to make good on his solemn pledge if the President, by any chance, chooses to bite the bullet and appoint him Prime Minister again.

It will be impossible for the UNP and the TNA to muster a two-thirds majority in the current Parliament for the new Constitution without the support of the UPFA, which is against the constitution making project. If a draft Constitution is presented to the House it will face the same fate as the one President Kumaratunga tabled in Parliament in 2000. The UNP and the JVP joined forces to scuttle it by setting copies of it on fire in the House.

Chandrika’s draft Constitution, which came to be dubbed ‘Package’, was still born, but her comportment in the House in turmoil with Opposition heaping abuse on her, was widely considered ‘sterling’.

The UNP blamed President Kumaratunga for foul play. It said she had smuggled some provisions into the draft Constitution, without its consent, to enable herself to enjoy the powers of both the President and the Prime Minister during the transitional period.

Sirisena’s options

The UNP has been playing its cards well since 26 Oct. It has outmanoeuvred the Sirisena-Rajapaksa alliance on all fronts though it does not seem capable of beating the latter electorally. It is cranking up pressure on President Sirisena to appoint Wickremesinghe Prime Minister. The President is no stranger to about-turns, but whether he can be pressured to make a volte-face this time around is doubtful, given the situation he is in.

It is not difficult to guess what is up President Sirisena’s sleeve. Being put out to the grass is a worrisome proposition for any President. Sirisena is desirous of running for President again and he wants to win. There is no way he can realise his dream without the support of the SLPP and Mahinda Rajapaksa. He is convinced that he cannot bank on the UNP, which is sure to field its own candidate at the next presidential election.

President Sirisena crossed the point of no return the day he sacked the UNP-led government and appointed Rajapaksa Prime Minister before dissolving Parliament. He is not so naïve as to expect the supporters of the UNP and its allies to vote for him again at a presidential election. He is left with no alternative but to remain in the SLFP-SLPP coalition. A rapprochement between him and the UNP is, therefore, not within the realms of possibility, as it stands.

The UNP used President Sirisena against the Rajapaksas for three and a half years, and the boot is now on the other foot. Now that his attempt to dissolve Parliament has come a cropper, Sirisena is likely to turn more hostile towards the UNP if Wickremesinghe succeeds in having his own way. In such an eventuality, clashes between the President and his estranged partners are likely to escalate to the extent of government seizing up and all stakeholders having to opt for a general election.

On October 26, President Sirisena sacked Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe and appointed former President Mahinda Rajapaksa as PM.
On October 26, President Sirisena sacked Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe and appointed former President Mahinda Rajapaksa as PM.

Back to square one?

The present crisis basically stemmed from a personality clash between President Sirisena and the then Prime Minister Wickremesinghe. Their personal animosity led to a political conflict between the UNP and the UPFA, the ousting of the UNF government and an abortive attempt to dissolve Parliament. The appointment of the new Prime Minister and the Cabinet has also been challenged in courts. Courts, however, cannot tell the President who should be appointed Prime Minister. Close on the heels of Thursday’s SC verdict, Sirisena reiterated that he would not appoint Ranil PM. So, the vexed problem will find its way back to the political front via Hulftsdorp.

The UNP has been able to bring immense pressure to bear on the President through its motions in Parliament and protests outside. But Sirisena is still capable of making up leeway. He remains a force to be reckoned with. Now he has the backing of more than 100 MPs.

The 19th Amendment has effectively prevented the President from sacking the Prime Minister. But it does not say how to make governance possible in a situation where the President and the Prime Minister happen to be at loggerheads. There’s the rub. Hence the pressing need for all stakeholders to soften their positions and make a serious effort to find a solution before the genie is out of the bottle.

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