The Day Of Judgement Draws Nearer …

Since Parliament was reconvened nearly two weeks ago, the UNF and its allies the TNA and the JVP have consistently shown they command the majority, but President Sirisena refuses to restore the status quo ante.

Vishvanath

Parliament has been in gridlock for over one month with all parties to the political conflict remaining intransigent. The Speaker and the President have locked horns, with the former refusing to recognize the government the latter has appointed. The government is boycotting Parliament, claiming that the Speaker is acting in a partisan manner. Its wisdom stands questioned in that it is answerable to Parliament.

President Sirisena has declared that he will never appoint UNP leader Ranil Wickremesinghe Prime Minister again even if the UNP manages to muster a working majority in the House. Sounds familiar? This is exactly what Sirisena said, on the eve of the last general election, albeit in a different context. In a controversial address to the nation, he said he would not appoint former President Mahinda Rajapaska, who was in the fray as the prime ministerial candidate of the UPFA, even if that party emerged the winner. Today, he incurred the wrath of the UNP by appointing Rajapaksa Prime Minister though the UPFA failed to win that election!

The final determination of the Supreme Court on the dissolution of Parliament is at least one week away. A seven-member bench has been appointed to hear the petitions against the President’s proclamation dissolving Parliament. The lead-up to the ‘judgment day’ is going to be more eventful than the past few weeks. The government and the Opposition are bound to dispute the lead within the next few days.

The general consensus is that a parliamentary election could be a way out, but the UNP, the TNA and the JVP insist that the status quo ante be restored, first of all. They have agreed to consider passing a resolution to dissolve Parliament thereafter. They JVP says it will fully back such a resolution but not until the present administration which it calls illegal is dislodged. In other words, the Opposition collective wants President Maithripala Sirisena to throw in the towel and Prime Minister Rajapaksa to call it quits so that the crisis could be resolved on its terms. But no party can be expected to concede defeat in this high-stakes political battle, which is being fiercely fought. They have crossed the point of no return.

Better times. Speaker Karu Jayasuriya escorting President Sirisena to Parliament. The current crisis has pitted the two against each other.
Better times. Speaker Karu Jayasuriya escorting President Sirisena to Parliament. The current crisis has pitted the two against each other.

President’s brinkmanship

President Sirisena may look flexible when he says he is willing to consider appointing anyone other than Ranil (or Sarath Fonseka) Prime Minister if the UNP can prove it has a majority in Parliament. But looks can be deceptive, as is common knowledge. He has laid down a precondition which the UNP finds it well-nigh impossible to meet; it cannot throw its beleaguered leader, Ranil, overboard to secure premiership even if it manages to secure a majority, which is also an uphill task.

The UNP has only 102 seats at present and is heavily dependent on the TNA (15 seats) and/or the JVP (06 seats) to take on the government. The TNA and the JVP have said they will not join a future UNP government even if they succeed in toppling the incumbent administration.

It is popularly said in this country that a person who has been hit by a firebrand is scared of even a firefly. The UNP is smarting from the findings of the Presidential Commission of Inquiry which probed the Treasury bond scams. What is troubling it now is not a firefly as such; it is a firebrand. President Sirisena is threatening a presidential probe into alleged malpractices under the previous government. Is he trying to scare the UNP into submission?

Nobody can prevent the President from exercising his prerogative to appoint any number of presidential commissions of inquiry though it can be asked whether he can deny the responsibility for what the previous government did under his leadership. The people punished President Rajapaksa for what his government had done, didn’t they?

The President’s wings have been clipped to some extent, but he is still left with enough powers to make lives miserable for his political opponents. President Sirisena, we see at present, is different from his pre-Oct. 26 incarnation. Backed by the entire UPFA parliamentary group, he is now ready to fight his way through the enemy lines. Whoever would have thought he would sack the UNP-led government and dissolve Parliament?

President Sirisena has consolidated his power and Rajapaksa is now at his mercy, having grabbed power, made an irrevocable commitment in the process and given up his SLFP membership; UNP leader has also got into a hole. But not that everything is copacetic. If the Rajapaksas succeed in wriggling out of the current mess and consolidating their power it will be a different ball game altogether in such an eventuality.

Dissension within SLPP ranks

It is obvious that President Sirisena has joined forces with the SLPP not out of principle but expediency; he is all out to fortify his political future. One does not harvest a honeycomb to lick his fingers, as the local saying goes. Had the UNP treated him well and agreed to field him as the common presidential candidate again, he would not have smoked the peace pipe with the Rajapaksas; he would still have been with the UNP. The so-called high speed trials and the prospect of being thrown behind bars may have prompted the SLPP heavyweights to grab the hand that Sirisena extended, but their party has several presidential hopefuls who consider Sirisena an obstacle. It may even be that some of them want the present administration to collapse so that Sirisena would fall between two stools. We are living in a country, whose history is replete with incidents where rulers committed even parricide to capture or retain power. Power politics and political ambitions have torn families apart. We have seen this happen to the Bandaranaikes and the Ranatungas.

Former President Rajapaksa’s plunge in the dark on Oct. 26 was not to the liking of some SLPP stalwarts though they went along with his decision for want of a better alternative. Rajapaksa apparently sought to reassure those dissidents by obtaining SLPP membership much to the chagrin of the President’s camp. It was too hasty a move.

Though President Sirisena appointed Mahinda Rajapaksa Prime Minister, the government has not been accepted the UNP-led UNF, the TNA and the JVP. Dinesh Gunawardena seen in this picture was made the Leader of the House. But the “governing” side has spent little in Parliament.
Though President Sirisena appointed Mahinda Rajapaksa Prime Minister, the government has not been accepted the UNP-led UNF, the TNA and the JVP. Dinesh Gunawardena seen in this picture was made the Leader of the House. But the “governing” side has spent little in Parliament.

TNA in a quandary

The TNA made no bones about its partiality to the UNP while the latter was in power. It made a mockery of its position as the official Opposition by voting with the ruling UNP and leaping to the defence of Prime Minister Wickremesinghe when a motion of no-confidence was moved against him a few moons ago. It was able to justify doing so to its voters because the UNP was amenable to devolution and a new Constitution was being written to devolve more power. But it has had to contend with an erosion of its vote bank with hardliners emerging stronger as evident from the results of the last local government polls in the North and the East.

The TNA raised the expectations of its supporters by promising more powers to the provinces. Now that the promised Constitution has not come about, there are political risks that the TNA has to take in undertaking to back a UNP administration with no prospect of constitutional reforms becoming a reality. The TNA is no longer a monolithic political entity; one of its MPs has crossed over to the UPFA and former Chief Minister C. V. Wigneswaran has formed a new political party.

JVP’s dilemma

It is not politically prudent for the JVP to be seen with the UNP, for it cannot eat into the UNP vote bank, which is antipathetic to outfits with socialist leanings. It is also wishful thinking that the JVP will gain electorally from its associations with the TNA either.

JVP founder leader Rohana Wijeweera’s strategy was to make inroads into the SLFP’s support base, emerge as the second force in national politics and then take on the UNP to capture state power. In fact, one of the five classes conducted by the JVP to indoctrinate the youth was on this strategy. Wijeweera was proved right posthumously in 2004, when the JVP, contesting a general election as a constituent of the SLFP-led UPFA, won over a sizeable chunk of the SLFP’s traditional vote bank and secured as many as 39 seats; it even gave away two National List slots to the SLFP. This was a stellar performance by any standard; some of the JVP candidates polled more preferential votes than very senior SLFPers in the fray.

At the 2004 parliamentary polls, JVP candidate Vijitha Herath comfortably beat Anura Bandaranaike in the latter’s stronghold, Gampaha. He received 215, 540 preferential votes as opposed to Bandaranaike’s 198, 444.  The then President Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga threw her weight behind her sibling, Anura, in a bid to help him come first in the contest, but in vain. In the Colombo District, JVP candidate Wimal Weerawansa topped the UPFA list by polling 237,185 preferential votes. Current JVP leader Anura Kumara Disanayake polled the highest number of preferential votes (153,868) in the Kurunegala District. The JVP, however, failed to manage its electoral fortunes properly as it got cocky and reckless.

The JVP, which has been seen with the UNP-led forces since 2006 or so, is currently left with only six seats in Parliament. This may be the reason why the JVP has categorically stated that it will never help prop up a UNP-led administration.

The JVP has started bashing both the UPFA and the UNP, but it is doubtful whether it will be able to regain lost ground, for its sympathies are thought to be with the UNP; perceptions do matter in politics as much as reality. The JVP is in a dilemma. It cannot change horses in midstream.

While Ranil Wickremesinghe has the support of his party and others in restoring the status quo, his bigger battle will be within the UNP, with many members wanting him to hand over the reins to someone else.
While Ranil Wickremesinghe has the support of his party and others in restoring the status quo, his bigger battle will be within the UNP, with many members wanting him to hand over the reins to someone else.

Trouble brewing in UNP

UNP top rankers are getting on like a house on fire, at present. President Sirisena’s hostile action has galvanized the entire party into action. They do not want to fight for leadership at this juncture and incur the ire of the party’s rank and file. Instead, they want to be seen to be providing leadership for the party’s fight against the President and the UPFA. However, some young UNP MPs continue to make comments critical of the party leadership. The problem with dissension is that, if left unattended, it gives rise to mutinies.

The UNP rebels, who are leading the party’s battle against the government, from the front, are not likely to settle for a mere sop when the present crisis blows over. They may ask for radical reforms to trammel the party leader and transfer more powers to others.

Whether the UNP wins or loses the ongoing political and judicial battle, Speakers Karu Jayasuriya will emerge a hero to the party. He has already endeared himself to the UNP’s rank and file as a saviour.

Earlier on, the UNP’s second level leaders were at the mercy of the party leader, but today it is other way around; this might lead to the emergence of several alternative power centres in the UNP. This is a worrisome proposition for the beleaguered UNP leader currently holed up in Temple Trees. He may have to fight a different battle at Sirikotha sooner or later.

 

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