The plot thickens

Surrounded by family and well-wishers, President Sirisena celebrated Avurudu at his official residence in Colombo. SLFP/UPFA Ministers A H M Fowzie and Nimal Siripala de Silva are also in the picture. (Presdient's media unit)

Vishavanth

The sudden prorogation of Parliament, on the eve of the traditional New Year, led to a real hullabaloo, which, however, fizzled out shortly afterwards. Nobody seems to care a damn about the prorogation and the attendant issues anymore, for there has been a severe erosion of public faith in the national legislature, which makes little or no contribution to national progress. Its members meet, shout, exchange blows, trade insults, gormandize and disperse. Even during crucial debates most of the comfy seats remain empty. Questions raised by the Opposition, more often than not, go unanswered. The only thing legislators do properly is to present supplementary estimates, seeking colossal amounts of public funds, to buy themselves luxury vehicles and feather their nests.

The general consensus is that President Maithripala Sirisena prorogued Parliament to buy time until he gets his act together on the political front. Sixteen more SLFP ministers who voted for the no-confidence motion against Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe recently and lost their ministerial posts, as a result, were to cross over to the Opposition. Their exit will weaken the President’s position further in the government as well as in the SLFP/UPFA. He finds himself between a rock and a hard place; with both the UNP and the Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP)/Joint Opposition (JO) emerging stronger at his expense. The president has delayed the defection of the ex-ministers. He has demonstrated once again that he is ready to go to any extent to safeguard his interests.

Never a dull moment in this land like no other! In a dramatic turn of events, SLFP General Secretary and Minister Duminda Dissanayake has declared that President Maithripala will contest the next presidential election on the SLFP ticket. This announcement came while the President was away in London, pressing flesh, at the CHOGM (Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting). It was a case of Dissanayake throwing Sirisena’s hat into the ring. Sirisena refuses to be drawn on whether or not he will seek a second term, when he meets the press, but he loves to fuel speculation about his candidature by getting the members of his kitchen cabinet to make various statements to that effect. Thus, he keeps the pot boiling and testing the water.

British Prime Minister Theresa May greets President Maithripala Sirisena at the inauguration of the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting held in London on April 19.
British Prime Minister Theresa May greets President Maithripala Sirisena at the inauguration of the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting held in London on April 19.

 

Is it that President Sirisena is not capable of doing a simple statistical analysis of the LG polls results and making a prognosis? Both the UPFA and the SLFP, went it alone in some areas, and could poll only 13% of the total number of valid votes at the Feb. 10 local government polls. The only party the SLFP can beat on its own at the next presidential election will be the JVP, which got 6% of votes in February. However, the fact remains that people vote differently at a presidential election and President Sirisena will poll more than 13%, but, by no stretch of the imagination can it be expected that he will be able to secure more than 20% of the votes without the backing of the UNP and its allies.

What’s up Sirisena’s sleeve?

President Sirisena is smarter than many think he is. Else, his rise from a low rung of the public service—Grama Niladhari—to the highest position in the country wouldn’t have been possible. He knows that as for his success at the next presidential election he stands the same chance as a cat in hell if his party goes it alone.

President Sirisena’s term is nearing its end. He can’t be unaware that he is a lame duck President, and unless he seeks a second term another power center is bound to emerge within the SLFP at his expense. The only way a President in such a situation can remain relevant in national politics and within his or her party is to contest again. But, Sirisena has a problem, a big one at that. He made a solemn pledge before the 2015 presidential election that he would be a one-term President and he would bow out after accomplishing his mission, which was to restore democracy and law and order, eliminate bribery and corruption, repair the country’s international image and creating the conditions for a new political culture to take root. He renewed this pledge immediately after his inauguration as the President.

Above all, it was on the understanding that Sirisena would not seek a second term that the UNP threw its weight behind him in 2015 and enabled his victory. The political enemies of the Rajapaksas’ wanted Sirisena to help defeat President Rajapaksa, topple the mighty UPFA government, maintain a low profile like the late President D. B. Wijetunga and fade away after completing the first term. They wanted to have their own government and President thereafter. But, they made a terrible mistake. They did not know Sirisena!

More defection from the SLFP?

Speculation is rife that there will be some more defections from the SLFP. The question is which party Minister Duminda Dissanayake will be in when the next presidential election comes around—the SLFP or some other party? Journalists who covered his media briefing should have fired this curve ball at him and sought an answer from him. The same question should be posed to several other UPFA ministers who abstained when the motion of no confidence against Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe was put to the vote recently in Parliament.

President Sirisena, in London to attend CHOGM participated in religious ceremonies connected with the Avurudu festivities at the London Buddhist Vihara. (President's media unit)
President Sirisena, in London to attend CHOGM participated in religious ceremonies connected with the Avurudu festivities at the London Buddhist Vihara. (President’s media unit)

Since 2000, we have seen three general secretaries of the SLFP and the UNP—two from the SLFP and one from the UNP—defect. In 2001, SLFP General Secretary S. B. Dissanayake crossed over to the UNP with a group of government MPs, bringing down the Chandrika Kumaratunga government. In 2015, SLFP General Secretary Sirisena left the party, to all intents and purposes, and joined forces with the UNP to secure the presidency. A few weeks after his grand exit, UNP General Secretary Tissa Attanayake crossed over to the SLFP.

The SLFP will suffer another erosion of its support base owing to its most recent split over the no-faith motion against the PM. With their breakaway, the SLFP won’t be able to retain its 13%, which is bound to decrease considerably if not drastically.

However, if President Sirisena finds himself in a situation where he cannot continue his honeymoon with the UNP or secure another term, he can still attempt rapprochement with the JO/SLPP, probably on his own terms, by using his 14% as a bargaining chip. He may not be able to contest the next presidential election in such an eventuality, but wield considerable bargaining power to negotiate a cessation of hostilities, as it were. A split in the SLFP vote at the next presidential election is the last thing the JO/SLPP wants.

UNP’s jumbo woes

If the results of one election can be extrapolated to another one, as psepholgists tend to do, then one can go by the outcome of the Feb. 10 local government polls and posit that the chances of the UNP winning the next presidential election are also remote. The apologists of the yahapalana government by way of a face-saving exercise in the aftermath of their disastrous polls defeat last February, concocted a theory that the anti-Rajapaksa parties had retained the same level of support as in 2015; they said that 55% of voters had rejected the Rajapaksas’, who wouldn’t be able to win a presidential election again.

What they did not factor in was that the JVP, which polled 6% and the SLFP/UPFA, which secured 13% had taken on the UNP besides the SLPP in the run-up to the polls. It may be recalled that President Sirisena, who led the SLFP/UPFA campaign, went so far as to promise that he would strip the UNP of control over the economy first thing after the polls and lay the foundation for the formation of an SLFP government. The JVP gained maximum possible mileage from the bond scams, which it used against the UNP. Therefore, the argument that the JVP and SLFP/UPFA voters would vote for a UNP-led grand coalition again is not tenable.

The UNP polled only 33% of the total number of valid votes and even with the help of the TNA’s 3%, it will be able to muster only 36% whereas the SLPP polled 45% of the votes and needs only 5% more to cross the 50% plus one barrier at a presidential election.

A large group of invitees including clergy of different religions attended a tea party at Temple Trees to mark the start of the New Year. Picture shows Prime Minister Ranil Wickremasinghe receiving blessings from a member of the Buddhist clergy. (PM's media unit)
A large group of invitees including clergy of different religions attended a tea party at Temple Trees to mark the start of the New Year. Picture shows Prime Minister Ranil Wickremasinghe receiving blessings from a member of the Buddhist clergy. (PM’s media unit)

President Sirisena has realised the UNP’s difficulties. He is trying to increase the SLFP’s bargaining power by making his party appear to be the kingmaker. The TNA cannot poll more than 3% votes but it makes the UNP dance to its tune. It succeeded in having the UNP agree to 10 demands in return for opposing the no-faith motion against PM Wickremesinghe in Parliament. At the last presidential election, the TNA got the yahapalana leaders to promise to introduce a new Constitution and devolve more powers to the provinces, scale down the military presence in the North and the East and probe accountability issues.

So, President Sirisena may have thought of emulating the TNA or the CWC or the SLMC and controlling the UNP. He knows the UNP is looking for a presidential candidate and PM Wickremesinghe does not fit the bill, because the latter lost two presidential elections (in 1999 and 2005) and avoided contesting two (in 2010 and 2015). There is hardly any time left for the UNP to groom a new candidate. On the other hand, the key slots of the UNP are occupied by persons loyal to the PM and they will not allow anyone else from the UNP to contest the presidential election.

PM’s dilemma

PM Wickremesinghe, in spite of his party’s electoral debacles under his watch, in the past, succeeded in retaining his Mr. Clean image. That however, has suffered irreparable damage owing to the bond scams during the last couple of years. The presidential probe, Sirisena ordered into the scams, ruined Wickremesinghe’s image as well as his chances of running and winning a presidential election. Its devastating impact on the UNP became manifestly clear at the Feb. 10 mini polls.

If the Rajapaksas’ make a comeback, they will turn the yahapalana project on its head. So, how will the anti-Rajapaksa camp seek to prevent another Rajapaksa government being formed in the future? They can’t market Wickremesinghe and there is no one to be groomed for the role in the UNP. There is the likelihood of the civil society outfits, external forces and others who constitute the yahapalana camp, which believes that the people haven’t rejected them at the Feb. 10 local government polls, choosing President Sirisena as the common candidate again for want of a better alternative. That may be the reason why the SLFP has already announced Sirisena’s candidature.

Will the yahapalana allies be able to justify fielding Sirisena again in spite of his much-publicised pledge that he is a one-term president on a messianic mission? Well, given the number of promises they have reneged on, that will be least of their problems.  They will simple quote Machiavelli, who said, “The promise given was a necessity of the past: “The word broken is a necessity of the present.”  They may claim Sirisena needs another term to fulfil his promises.

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