TNA’s Pound Of Flesh, UNP’s Woes And UPFA’s Dilemma
The UNP finds itself between the devil and the deep blue sea. It is dependent on the TNA to control Parliament, where it lacks a working majority, and fulfilling the TNA’s conditions is likely to cost it dear in terms of votes in the southern electorate. The TNA’s attempt to retain the post of the Opposition Leader, while propping up the government, has failed; the Speaker has reiterated his position that former President Mahinda Rajapaksa is the Opposition Leader.
Having enabled the UNP to regain power, the TNA must have been labouring under the delusion that the government would go the whole hog to grant its wish—retaining the post of the Opposition Leader. But the UNP knew it was fighting a losing battle over the Opposition Leader’s post though it initially tried to deprive the UPFA of it. Speaker Karu Jayasuriya made a virtue of necessity by recognising Rajapaksa as the Opposition Leader without letting the issue spill over on to the streets.
Rajapaksa now has something to hold on to in Parliament. His forcibly formed government lacked legitimacy in that the western nations refused to recognise it. But, in his new capacity as the Opposition Leader, he has already received some high ranking officials of the EU. Besides, cynics say the Opposition Leader has power without responsibility, which British Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin famously likened to ‘the prerogative of the harlot throughout ages’, albeit in a different context.
Having lost the post of the Opposition Leader and recognition associated with it, the TNA is now bent on exacting its pound of flesh—a new Constitution devolving more power. Strong as it may be in the North and East, it is not free from challenges if the outcome of the Feb. 10 local government polls is any indication; smaller political groups are eating into its powerbase and the possibility of an alternative power centres emerging in those parts of the country cannot be ruled out. Former Chief Minister C. V. Wigneswaran has already broken away from the TNA and formed a new party. Extensive devolution, if not federalism, is the TNA’s main campaign promise in 2015, and it has to make good on its pledge before the next electoral contest.
Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe has undertaken the unenviable task of presenting the report of the expert committee on constitution making to the Constitutional Assembly, shortly, according to media reports. The document is widely considered to be the draft Constitution itself. Opposition Leader Rajapaksa has already vowed to torpedo it and the Lekakadhikari of the Asgiriya Chapter Ven. Medagama Dhammananda Thera has fired a shot across the government’s bow. He has turned down what he calls federal constitution out of hand. These adverse reactions presage trouble for the government on the political front, in this election year.
A replay of history
We are likely to witness a replay of history, as it were, within the next few months if the government presents the ‘draft Constitution’ proper, soon. In 2000, the then President Chandrika Kumaratunga presented to Parliament her draft Constitution, which envisaged regional councils, among other things. The UNP and the JVP joined forces to scuttle it, claiming that some provisions had been incorporated into it without their concurrence. They plunged the House into turmoil and some UNP MPs went so far as to set copies of the draft Constitution, which was better known as the Package (of constitutional reforms), on fire, in the Chamber.
Needless to say that Chandrika’s Constitution was stillborn. The TNA rejected it even before it was presented to Parliament. Twenty nine years on, there has been a role reversal. Will the UNP get a taste of its own medicine when the draft Constitution is presented to Parliament?
The proponents of the ‘draft Constitution’ say they are confident of securing a two-thirds majority in the House for it, somehow or the other. They are obviously toying with the idea of engineering crossovers from the UPFA. They will need at least 30 more turncoats. A referendum will be the biggest obstacle in their path even if they manage to clear the judicial and legislative hurdles.
No less a person than President Maithripala Sirisena has revealed that as much as Rs. 500 million each was offered to MPs in the aftermath of the October regime change, for crossing over. If that is true and there are venal MPs who are willing to be bribed, then the cost of mustering a two-thirds majority will be about Rs. 15 billion. Newly appointed SLFP General Secretary Dayasiri Jayasekera has said nobody will defect from his party. How can he be so sure? Two SLFP General Secretaries have defected and brought down SLFP-led governments since 2001. S. B. Dissanayake crossed over to the UNP with 15 other MPs in 2001 and Sirisena broke ranks with the party in 2014, won the presidency and dislodged the Rajapaksa government the following year.
There is no way the UNP can run away from the next presidential election, and it will need the TNA’s support to garner votes in the North and the East. Prime Minister Wickremesinghe has taken upon himself the task of developing the North. So, the government will have to do everything in its power to humour the TNA, which will not settle for anything less than the devolution of more power to the provinces or regions.
Anaconda and jaguar
In a viral video doing the rounds on social networking sites, a jaguar pounces on an anaconda in a river, and the water gets bloody with the powerful feline ferociously clawing and biting the giant snake, which looks finished. But, suddenly, the anaconda throws a coil around the jaguar, and makes a sumptuous repast upon it, leisurely. The video reminded us of what was happening on the political front, in this country. The UNP took on the Executive, with might and main, and the fight is still going on. Whether the latter will succeed in its effort to make a comeback like the anaconda in the aforesaid video or the unfolding political drama will have a different ending remains to be seen.
President Maithripala Sirisena remains determined to put paid to the UNP’s attempts to undermine his position further. Having given the PM and the new Cabinet an earful immediately after swearing them in, he is now asserting himself. He seems to have realised that attack is the best form of defence. He has prevented some UNPers who ruffled his feathers from being given ministerial positions, and appointed a vetting committee to handle all appointments to the top posts in government corporations etc. He has laid down selection criteria as regards those key appointments, as reported in the media. The UNP is said have taken exception to the President’s interference in those appointments which it considers its province. It is, however, fighting shy of taking him on again.
President Sirisena’s latest action aimed at consolidating his position in the government is not without a precedent. In Feb. 1989, the late President Ranasinghe Premadasa, told his newly appointed Cabinet of ministers, in no uncertain terms, that they could not make key appointments to corporations etc. without his approval. He said: “Each minister should take action to reconstitute the Boards of Directors of all Corporations, Statutory Boards and Authorities assigned to him. Every appointment to such Board of Directors must receive my prior approval and requests for covering approval should be avoided.” The ministers knew he meant business and fell in line.
Both the UNP and President Sirisena are aware that the government cannot go on unless they cooperate at least to some extent, and the latter seems to be trying to bring about some kind of rapprochement, on his own terms by practising brinkmanship. The President may soften his stand on those appointments if the UNP becomes less hostile and agrees to perform certain tasks such as presenting bills in Parliament, on his behalf; he is currently in a tight spot because the Constitution does not permit him to move Bills though he can hold ministerial positions and attend Parliament.
Another political marriage in the offing
President Sirisena and Rajapaksa have buried the hatchet and are working together, for expediency, but the political forces they lead are still at loggerheads, at the grassroots level. The electoral organisers of the SLFP have recently resisted the President’s move to forge an alliance with the SLPP. Former President Chandrika Kumaratunga is also working overtime to prevent a coming together of the two parties; she stands accused of trying to grab the SLFP leadership to forge an electoral alliance with the UNP. She is a force to be reckoned with. Rajapaksa underestimated her, and he did not know what hit him in January 2015. Sirisena seems to be much wiser than his immediate predecessor; he did not want to leave anything to chance when he left for Thailand towards the end of last year. He closed the SLFP headquarters and took the key away. It may be recalled that Rajapaksa was still reeling from an unexpected defeat and trying to figure out what had happened to him on 09 Jan. 2015, when Chandrika made a dramatic appearance at the SLFP head office.
The SLPP was formed as an alternative to the SLFP and the former trounced the latter at the mini polls in February. So, it wants the proposed alliance to be formed, on its terms. The SLFP seniors who are not well disposed towards the Rajapaksas might rebel against the present party leadership if they feel their interests are threatened owing to the alliance to be formed, and such an eventuality will be to the advantage of Kumaratunga, who is trying to secure a bridgehead in the SLFP.
The SLFP has already declared that President Sirisena will be its presidential candidate. Will his candidature be acceptable to the SLPP or do the UPFA dissidents want someone else fielded? There are several presidential hopefuls in the SLPP. It is no secret that a section of the SLPP wants former Defence Secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa to run for President. Gotabaya’s biggest handicap is his dual citizenship, which disqualifies him from contesting elections. Whether he will be able to relinquish his US citizenship in time for the presidential polls remains to be seen.
There is the likelihood of the SLPP-SLFP alliance to be formed, splitting in half on the question of the next presidential candidate.