An attempt by the SJB-led Opposition to oust Udaya Gammanpila as the Minister of Energy by moving a no-confidence motion against him over the fuel prices hikes, etc., has prompted the ruling SLPP to fight in defence of him. The government MPs cannot afford to do otherwise, as they are aware that the Opposition is trying to capitalize on factionalism in the SLPP coalition. On the other hand, anyone knows that the Energy Minister cannot revise fuel prices upwards or downwards under his own steam. Such politically sensitive decisions are always taken at the highest levels of government. The SLPP, therefore, has to defeat the no-faith motion, whether it likes Gammanpila or not, and it will go all out to do so. It cannot be unaware that the vote of no confidence is, in effect, against it.

The Opposition has provided the government with another opportunity to score another win in Parliament. It may have thought it would be able to embarrass the government and score some points during the no-faith motion debate, but it could have done so during some other debate or even outside Parliament. Shouting in Parliament does not help the Opposition gain political traction, as such. The government is sure to fight back. A brawl is likely to pass for a debate on the no-faith motion in question, and leave the public none the wiser. Minister Gammanpila is very likely to emerge unscathed in the end, but his problems will not be over.

Offensive action and risk of blowback

Impeachment motions and votes of no confidence are to be moved cautiously, for they could end up being mishits and therefore be counterproductive, anywhere in the world. This is what happened in the US after the last presidential election. The then President Donald Trump incurred much public opprobrium by trying to cling on to power by alleging vote rigging and other election malpractices, after his defeat. Nobody took his accusations including a grand conspiracy theory seriously except his diehard supporters who even laid siege to Capitol Hill in a bid to overturn the election results. Then came the (second) impeachment bid against him; it passed muster with the House of Representatives, but the trial that ensued failed in the Senate for want of a two-thirds majority.

The impeachment article overwhelmingly supported by the Democrats besides some House Republicans who dislike Trump only prompted a majority of Republican senators defend Trump because they thought the Democrats had resorted to extreme action; they also wanted to safeguard the interests of their Grand Old Party regardless of their antipathy towards Trump. The impeachment bid thus provided the Republicans with a fresh rallying point. The failure of the impeachment trial only gave a boost to Trump’s bid to make a comeback.

Trump would still have been licking his wounds in the political wilderness but for the abortive impeachment bid. He is now carrying out scathing attacks on his opponents, and his supporters are spreading rumours that he is on his way back to the White House.

In 1992, an impeachment motion backfired in this country. A group of UNP rebels and the then Opposition submitted an impeachment motion against the late President Ranasinghe Premadasa, who succeeded in scuttling it even before the Speaker accepted it.

He resorted to coercive action to achieve his objective. He then purged all dissenting UNP MPs, and consolidated his power. That impeachment bid came a bit too early. If the UNP rebel faction had exercised patience and waited till the time was opportune, perhaps they would have succeeded in their endeavour at the rate Premadasa was antagonizing his MPs. The failed impeachment bid led to a split in the UNP, which lost many of its stalwarts, especially Lalith Athulathmudali and Gamini Dissanayake. They left the UNP to form a separate political party, the DUNF, and died untimely deaths. The same fate befell Premadasa.

As for motions of no confidence in recent Sri Lankan politics, the Joint Opposition led by UPFA MP and former President Mahinda Rajapaksa moved a no-faith vote against the then Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe after the SLPP’s stunning victory at the local government election. The UNP was faction-ridden, at the time, and its rebel faction was all out to get rid of Wickremesinghe as the party leader. The Joint Opposition tried to drove in the wedge in the form of its no-faith motion, but the UNF MPs chose to rally behind Wickremesinghe as they did not want their government to collapse; they knew their political rivals would capture power in such an eventuality. The vote of no confidence flopped.

A few months later, the Joint Opposition and the then President Maithripala Sirisena tried to oust Wickremesinghe as the Prime Minister, but they, albeit unwittingly, only helped him cement his power in the party as well as in Parliament. Its abortive attempt also reunified a divided UNP, which also received the sympathy of the international sympathy. The UNP failed to build on what it achieved, and suffered a split, and was left with only a single National List slot at the last general election, but that’s another story.

Grins and grimaces

Chances are that the conclusion of the ongoing debate and the outcome of the subsequent vote will see Gammanpila beaming from ear to ear and teasing the Opposition with renewed vigour. But problems will be far from over for the SLPP, where three groups are vying for dominance.

The SLPP leaders are papering over the cracks. The disgruntlement of some government seniors is palpable. SLPP MP and former Minister S. B. Dissanayake has publicly articulated his grievances, lamenting that he has not been appointed a minster. He says he deserves a ministerial post, given his seniority in Parliament. There are several other SLPP MPs who think like him; all of them want to be ministers.

Some of the ministers and State Ministers are not happy with what they have got. State Minister Dayasiri Jayasekera has gone on record as saying his Batik portfolio is widely considered a joke; he has held Basil Rajapaksa responsible for the creation and allocation of such ministries, and got under the skin of SLPP General Secretary Sagara Kariyawasam, a trusted lieutenant of Basil. Jayasekera is a former Cabinet minister.

Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa has put his foot down in defence of his family. He has told the SLPP dissenters that they can leave the government if they do not accept its policies. He issued similar warnings during his second term as the President, and in the end, he witnessed several key UPFA ministers and ordinary MPs leaving his government, causing his defeat. If the SLPP leaders have learnt lessons from their defeat in 2015, they will not ride roughshod over the party dissenters, and run the risk of facing desertions. It is thought in political circles that the government is likely to

soften its stand on the rebel faction and make a serious effort to pacify them.

There is the likelihood of the government expanding the Cabinet to accommodate some of the disgruntled SLPP seniors who are former ministers, because the 20th Amendment has empowered the President to determine the number of Cabinet ministers.

Bid to pacify dissenters

It has been reported that the government is planning to appoint a number of ‘monitoring MPs’ to ministries so that they will enjoy some perks and feel important. The previous Rajapaksa government also made such appointments, and among the monitories MPs were Duminda Silva, who have been appointed the Chairman of the National Housing Authority, after being given a presidential pardon while serving a jail term for murder, and Sajin Vaas Gunawardena, who was very close to the Rajapaksa family at that time. Some of those monitoring MPs became a nuisance to the ministers and ministry officials.

The late President Premadasa was the first leader to use ministerial posts to neutralize party rebels, some of whom had even signed the impeachment motion against him. He also created state ministries and showered various perks on all government MPs. The governments that followed adopted this method to raise or retain their parliamentary majorities because the Proportional Representation system brought about weak governments save the ones formed in 1989, 2010 and 2020 under extraordinary circumstances—during the JVP terror campaign, after the war victory and following the Easter Sunday terrorist bombings, respectively.

A relatively small Cabinet was appointed only after the last general election, because the 19th Amendment limited the number of Cabinet ministers. The 20th Amendment did away with

that restriction, but the government decided against expanding the Cabinet. If the government finds it difficult to prevent the dissidents from breaking ranks, it may decide to appoint more ministers. There is hardly anything that a government does not do to retain power.

Ambitious politicians dream of ministerial posts, but such appointments alone will not ensure that they will remain faithful to their party leaders. There are other factors that influence them, the main being the treatment they receive from their leaders. If they feel that they are sidelined or harassed, they will not hesitate to decamp, the way Maithripala Sirisena did in 2014 while being a Cabinet Minister of the Rajapaksa government and the General Secretary of the SLFP. S. B. Dissanayake and eight other members of President Chandrika Kumaratunga’s Cabinet defected to the UNP, in 2001, causing the collapse of the SLFP-led People’s Alliance government; he was the SLFP General Secretary at the time. What drives politicians is expediency and not principle.



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