A pall of political uncertainty hangs over the country following the recent change of government. Newly appointed Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa is busy consolidating his position and the UNP is girding itself for the fray. Ousted PM Ranil Wickremesinghe is not prepared to give in and the UNP is on the warpath. He put up a good show of strength on Tuesday, but the problem with protests is that they get forgotten in next to no time and issues that lead to them remain unsolved.
The collapse of the Sirisena-Wickremesinghe administration came as no surprise. It lasted so long thanks to their leaders’ mortal dread of their rivals making a comeback; they resigned themselves to a cat-and-dog life while papering over the cracks, for want of a better alternative. Adversity makes strange bedfellows, but alliances so made have to be cemented if they are to survive in divisive politics. But nothing of the sort happened where the yahapalana alliance was concerned. The UNP and the SLFP were busy furthering their interests at the expense of the wellbeing of their joint administration.
The yahapalana government was a shaky edifice erected on a foundation of sand. There was no way it could absorb electoral shocks and that was why its leaders avoided elections like the plague. Egged on by their well-wishers, they kept on postponing polls, but finally they had to face the local government elections last February. The rest is history. No government can win the elections it postpones for fear of facing them.
Needless to say the UNP and the SLFP did not gel as a group at the grassroots level. They are poles apart in many respects. In Sri Lanka’s patronage-based politics, the UNPers who had been thirsting for power for many years and finally got the opportunity to savour it thought their SLFP counterparts were benefitting from the UNP-led government more than they; the latter thought they were getting more than their fair share of the blame for the wrongs committed by the UNP-led government.
President Sirisena admitted, in his address to the nation, on Sunday, that the differences in policy, culture, personality and conduct between him and Wickremesinghe had aggravated the political and economic crises which the country is currently faced with.
The writing had been on the wall for the Sirisena-Wickremesinghe administration for quite some time with its leaders being at daggers drawn. The UNP wanted to end its uneasy political marriage with the SLFP, which also felt likewise, when both of them suffered a humiliating defeat at the Feb. 10 local government polls. They considered each other a political liability. But they continued to work together under pressure from the forces that had brought them together in 2014 and thrown in their lot with them. Their union almost came to an end over the appointment of the successor of disgraced Central Bank Governor Arjuna Mahendran, in 2016.
President Maithripala Sirisena and the then Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe had a heated argument at the Central Bank over the issue. Wickremesinghe failed to have his friend Mahendran, involved in the Treasury bond scams, reappointed. The President’s choice was Senior Deputy Governor Dr. Nandalal Weerasinghe, but an irate Wickremesinghe’s vehement protests led to an outsider, Dr. Indrajit Coomaraswamy, close to the UNP, getting the coveted job.
President Sirisena sought to remove Wickremesinghe as the PM after the last local government polls, but got cold feet, when a motion of no confidence was moved against the latter. He did not trust the Rajapaksas at that time. He apparently feared that he would fall between two stools with neither the UNP nor the Joint Opposition/Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna to back him. He allowed a conscience vote for his MPs. Wickremesinghe survived the bid to remove him, but he made a colossal blunder. Instead of winning over the SLFP Minister who had voted against him and keeping the yahapalana alliance intact at least until time was ripe for the UNP to pull out of it, he hounded them out of the Cabinet and strengthened the hands of the Rajapaksas in the process albeit unwittingly. They voted with their feet and closed ranks with the JO/SLPP and were instrumental in bringing about a rapprochement between Sirisena and the Rajapaksas. It was they who brought pressure to bear on the President to sack Ranil and appoint Rajapaksa PM.
The SLFP lost power in 2015 owing to a dispute over premiership. Rajapaksa, while he was ensconced in power as the President, refused to appoint Sirisena Prime Minister; the latter broke away and defeated the former at the last presidential election with the help of the UNP. Sirisena ensured that the SLFP-led UPFA would not win the August 2015 general election by declaring, in an address to the nation, that he would not appoint Rajapaksa Prime Minister even if the UPFA won the election. The SLFPers, who wanted Rajapaksa to make a comeback as the PM, were so demoralised that it is believed that many of them did not care to vote. A little over three years on, Sirisena has appointed Rajapaksa PM and unified the SLFP. Whoever would have thought that Sirisena and Basil Rajapaksa—two sworn enemies—would ever bury the hatchet?
The UNP may not have expected President Sirisena to smoke the peace pipe with his bete noire Rajapaksa, of all people, much less appoint him PM. If Niccolò Machiavelli were alive today he would add a chapter on President Sirisena to The Prince.
The UNP considered Sirisena malleable enough to do its bidding when it fielded him as the common presidential candidate of the Opposition in 2015. Expected him to retire after serving the first term, it started strengthening the position of Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe in the yahapalana government from the word go. It got the 19th Amendment crafted to clip the President’s wings drastically so that the Prime Minister and Parliament would not be at the mercy of the executive. Unbeknownst to the President his powers were curtailed so much so that constitutional experts now argue that the Prime Minister is more powerful than the President.
Power is highly addictive like hell dust and it is only natural that President Sirisena reneged on his pledge that he would not seek a second term. His volte-face strained the UPFA-UNP relations further. Differences between the President and the Prime Minister came to a head and led to frequent flare-ups at Cabinet meetings, which were dominated by the UNP. A President who lacks control over parliament becomes a banana without the skin as the local saying goes. During the 2001-2004 period, when the UNP controlled Parliament, the then President Chandrika Kumaratunga suffered many indignities at the hands of UNP ministers. She finally sacked the Wickremesinghe government. Under the 19th Amendment, the situation is far worse.
President Sirisena did everything in his power to get even with the UNP which was undermining his position. He utilized the executive powers he was left with. He appointed a presidential commission of inquiry to probe the bond scams and that move effectively ruined the image of Prime Minister Wickremesinghe and the UNP’s chances of winning an election. That was the price the UNP had to pay for ruffling the President’s feathers.
The bond commission report remains a potent weapon in President Sirisena’s armoury. Some of its sections have not been released to the media and they are believed to contain information which can be used against the UNP and the MPs who have got money from Perpetual Treasuries, which was involved in the bond scams.
The UNP reacted to the bond probe, and President Sirisena’s Chief of Staff was arrested allegedly for taking a huge bribe. But the incident did not have the effect the UNP desired because the President acted wisely. He allowed his official to stew in his own juice without trying to help him out unlike the UNP, which shielded Mahendran and helped him flee the country. In his address to the nation, the other day, President Sirisena minced no words when he said Wickremesinghe had to bring back Mahendran to stand trial for the bond scams. This is a reputation that the UNP and its leader can do without.
Assassination plot and fallout
An unknown entity who answers to the name of Namal Kumara became a household name overnight. A self-proclaimed anti-corruption activist, from Kegalle, he gave a press conference last month in Kandy, where he claimed the then Head of the Terrorist Investigation Division (TID) DIG Nalaka Silva had conspired to kill President Sirisena and former Defence Secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa. Not many took his claim seriously, but his revelation snowballed much to the embarrassment of the UNP.
The UNP mismanaged the assassination plot issue. It was slow to act thereon and seen to be partial to the DIG concerned. A plot to kill the head of state should have been taken far more seriously by the UNP. It took a long time for the police to interdict the DIG, who was at last arrested on the eve of the UPFA’s pullout from the government and the sacking of Prime Minister Wickremesinghe.
President Sirisena said, in his recent address to the nation, that the UNP had sought to suppress the investigations into the assassination bid and Prime Minister Wickremesinghe had never discussed anything about it with him. He dropped a bombshell when he said a Cabinet minister had been behind the conspiracy, which he used to justify his decision to join forces with the Rajapaksas.
Thus, what was initially dismissed as a tall tale told by a stoolpigeon finally led to the collapse of the yahapalana government if the reason President Sirisena has given for sacking PM Wickremesinghe is true.
Curiously, in the run-up to the last presidential election, Sirisena said that he was challenging Rajapaksa in spite of threats to his life in that it would be curtains for him in case of defeat. He urged the voting public to help save his life by electing him and the UNP enabled him to secure the presidency on Jan. 08, 2015. Nearly four years on, he has enlisted the backing of those he accused of trying to kill him to save him from the UNP!