So, it is now clear that President Maithripala Sirisena has failed to get a hole-in-one on the political front. His attempt to make short shrift of the UNP having failed, he claims that he has some more trump cards to play; he has already wasted three of them. He appointed Mahinda Rajapaksa Prime Minister, prorogued Parliament, which he subsequently dissolved, when he realised that he could not muster a working majority by engineering crossovers. He did not come up trumps. His latest move—the dissolution of Parliament—also failed to have the desired effect.
The President’s legal advisors may have expected the Supreme Court to dismiss all petitions against the dissolution of Parliament, in limine. But the apex court was convinced otherwise; it not only granted leave to proceed with the fundamental rights applications but also issued an interim injunction, suspending the dissolution of Parliament until Dec. 07.
The UNP-led Opposition was thus given the much-needed opportunity to have Parliament reconvened and prove, albeit in a controversial manner, that the government lacked a majority in the House. The final determination of the SC is yet to come, but the President’s plan A has already gone awry. He, however, is not likely to take it lying down. What’s up his sleeve?
In the world’s oldest military treatise, The Art of War, Sun Tzu has stressed the need for knowing one’s enemy before going to war. If you know your enemy and yourself, he has said, you need not fear the result of a hundred battles, but if you know yourself but not the enemy, for every victory you gain you will suffer a defeat; if you know neither the enemy nor yourself, you will succumb in every battle. These words of wisdom are of relevance to political battles as well.
President Sirisena knew only himself when he took on the UNP, which he underestimated. He may have thought Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe would beat a hasty retreat upon being sacked and things would fall into place within a few days. The timing is of the essence in all battles and Wickremesinghe refused to run away and continued to occupy Temple Trees, claiming that he was still the PM; the UNP regrouped, ably assisted by some powerful external forces, which want to keep the Grand Old Party in power for obvious reasons. The US and its western allies threw their weight behind the UNP. President Sirisena and Prime Minister Rajapaksa could not sustain their offensive, though they seemingly got off to a good start. The government’s shows of strength came a bit too prematurely and their effect had fizzled out by the time the battle proper began.
The UNP did not know what had hit it when Ranil was sacked and was all at sea for the first two days, but it regained its senses remarkably fast and adopted a three-pronged strategy to defeat President’s Sirisena’s moves. The western members of the Colombo-based diplomatic community promptly responded to the UNP’s mayday. The UNP fared poorly on the political front as could be seen from some crossovers to the President’s side and, initially fought shy of moving the Supreme Court. It finally managed to open an escape route via the legal front after being forced to challenge the dissolution of Parliament in the SC.
Let it be repeated that the interim relief granted by the SC gave the beleaguered UNP the much-needed oxygen, and Wickremesinghe cleverly made the best use of it to launch a counterattack on the political front. However, the ‘war’ is far from over, though the UNP has won a crucial battle. It is too early for the winner to be declared.
President Sirisena still holds the whip hand and, that is why, the UNP and its allies have offered to smoke the peace pipe with him. The JVP has said it will not back an impeachment motion against him. It is only making a virtue of necessity. The UNP and its strange bedfellows obviously lack a two-thirds majority and do not want to bite off more than they can chew and run the risk of burning the boats. Instead, they are trying to make peace with the President on the warpath so as to create a division in the enemy camp. Wickremesinghe has said he is willing to work with Sirisena.
The Rajapaksas’ blunder
The Rajapaksas’ made a hasty move, which was hurtful to President Sirisena. Former President turned Prime Minister, Rajapaksa gave up his SLFP membership and joined the SLPP officially. Many other SLFP seniors followed suit much to the consternation of the President and other SLFP stalwarts who had stood by him. Of the SLFP and the SLPP, the latter is obviously the more popular, as can be seen from the last local government polls results. The two parties are sure to coalesce for the next election. But the Rajapaksas’ should have waited at least until the dust had settled on the political front, to join the SLPP.
The UNP’s feelers, trying to bring about a rapprochement between Ranil and President Sirisena once again will make use of the Rajapaksa’s premature move in a bid to create a rift between the SLFP and the SLPP. The President is desperate where his political survival is concerned and, in politics, there are neither permanent enemies nor permanent friends.
The Rajapaksas’ and other UPFA MPs who joined the SLPP are now at the mercy of the SLFP, which can sack them any time, causing them to lose their parliamentary seats. President Sirisena is not likely to do so because he is now dependent on the SLPP, but the fact remains that the Rajapaksas’ have made a very unwise move though they are said to be blessed with a great deal of political acumen.
A referendum in the offing?
The SC interim injunction, which paved the way for the reconvening of Parliament has prompted government supporters to demand that President Sirisena ask the people directly, at a referendum, whether they consider a general election a way out of the present legislative gridlock. Sirisena remains noncommittal, but pressure is bound to mount on him, in time to come, and he may consider it an option if push comes to shove on the legal front. He is likely to wait until Dec. 07, when the SC determination on the dissolution of Parliament is expected, to make his decision known.
The UNP may be strong in Parliament, but the UPFA, the SLFP-and SLPP combine polled 58% of the total number of valid votes among them, at the Feb. 10 local government elections. One may argue that the results of a local level election cannot be extrapolated to a provincial or general election, but the fact remains that the SLPP is the most popular party at present, having polled about 45% of the votes, at the most recent election, as opposed to the UNP’s 33%.
President Sirisena may take these statistics into account when responding to the call for a referendum. One big disadvantage for him in going for a referendum will be that in such an eventuality the UNP and its allies including the JVP will be able to sink their ideological and other differences and put up a united front again, citing various excuses for their coming together.
Fear is the key
The Cabinet is reported to have decided to expedite the process of conducting Provincial Council elections. This is certainly bad news for the UNP, the TNA, the JVP and other parties which voted for the PC Election (Amendment) Bill, aimed at postponing polls. Having shown that they have a majority in Parliament, they will have to prove that they command the confidence of the people through an electoral contest. President Sirisena, with the SLPP on his side, is likely to do everything in his power to ensure that the PC polls are held without further delay.
The UNP has got a massive moral boost recently thanks to the mistakes on the part of the SLFP and the SLPP. But whether that alone will be sufficient for it to better its performance to the extent of winning an election remains to be seen. The signs are that it will have perforce to come out of Parliament and face the people sooner than expected. A battle on the electoral front is the last thing it wants.
President Sirisena will make the most of his enemies’ fear of elections by way of retaliation. He is known for outfoxing foxes. Now, he has Mahinda on his side, and two heads are said to be better than one. Ranil has proved that he is too foxy to be outfoxed. And, the war of foxes continues
The Chinese are said to curse others when they say, “May you live in interesting times!” It looks as if we are in for far more interesting times.