The first anniversary of goon attacks on the Galle Face protesters and the subsequent wave of retaliatory violence that swept through the country and led to the resignation of Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa, and the ouster of President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, fell yesterday (09). Perhaps, it was the government’s fear that there would be another wave of protests to mark the Aragalaya anniversary that led to the imposition by the Cabinet of Ministers of a blanket ban on political (as well as entertainment) events at Galle Face with immediate effect. Yesterday, not wanting to leave anything to chance, the police hurriedly obtained a court order preventing protests in the vicinity of the Presidential Secretariat, the President’s Houses, Temple Trees, etc. Anyway, there were no mass protests though calls had been made via social media for the people to take to the streets in large numbers.

The economy is said to be showing signs of recovery. There are no queues for fuel and other essential commodities, and according to the Central Bank statistics, inflation is decreasing. But the economic crisis is far from over, and it will take a long time for the ailing economy, which is still contracting, albeit at a reduced pace, to stabilize. There are huge loans, both foreign and domestic, to be repaid, and the biggest challenge before the country is to shore up its foreign exchange reserves fast. The government is also required to undertake domestic debt restructuring, which is likely to threaten the stability of many local financial institutions, including some established banks, and the workers’ superannuation funds, the EPF and the ETF. The restructuring of state-owned enterprises is also another challenge the government is facing. But the SLPP seems to think the economic crisis is over, and the time is opportune for it to make a comeback and revert to its old ways. Former ministers in its parliamentary group are demanding Cabinet posts, and some of them are publicly calling for the reappointment of Mahinda as the Prime Minister in a bid to have their interests served better. They floated a story recently that the SLPP would pass a resolution to that effect on May Day, but nothing of the sort happened.

Chief strategist of the SLPP, Basil Rajapaksa, himself, has lamented that the key members of his party were overlooked when the current Cabinet was appointed. In an interview with Hiru TV in February 2023, he said most of the SLPP MPs who had topped the preferential vote lists in their districts were without ministerial posts. It is popularly said in this country that a politician without power is like a banana without the skin. Unless the SLPP stalwarts manage to secure Cabinet posts, they will not be able to retain popular support in their electorates, much to the detriment of their party.

The SLPP is in this predicament while the UNP, which has only a single MP, is making the most of the situation to strengthen itself. This must be really hurtful to the Rajapaksa loyalists.

It was to further their own interests that the Rajapaksas made Ranil Wickremesinghe the President and are backing him in the parliament. It obviously did not anticipate what is playing out on the political front at present. It may have expected Wickremesinghe to bring order out of chaos fast, sort out the economy, maintain a low profile, and fade away, but he is busy consolidating his power. He has antagonized the SLPP by sacking four Provincial Governors appointed by his predecessor Gotabaya Rajapaksa.

There are many SLPP seniors eyeing Cabinet posts, and none of them are willing to settle for less. On the one hand, President Wickremesinghe cannot accommodate them in the Cabinet due to a constitutional restriction on ministerial appointments, and, on the other, he is aware that an expansion of the Cabinet for the benefit of the Rajapaksa loyalists will infuriate the public further and he will draw heavy flak.

Article 44 of the Constitution of Sri Lanka specifies that the number of Cabinet Ministers should not exceed thirty and that of the non-Cabinet Ministers should be below forty. It says, “The total number of (a) Ministers of the Cabinet of Ministers shall not exceed thirty; and (b) Ministers who are not members of the Cabinet of Ministers and Deputy Ministers shall not, in the aggregate, exceed forty.” The only way to overcome this hurdle is to form a national government.

Article 44 goes on to say, “Notwithstanding anything contained in paragraph (1) of this Article, where the recognized political party or the independent group which obtains the highest number of seats in Parliament forms a National Government, the number of Ministers in the Cabinet of Ministers, the number of Ministers who are not Cabinet of Ministers and the number of Deputy Ministers shall be determined by Parliament.

“For the purpose of paragraph (4), National Government means a Government formed by the recognized political party or the independent group which obtains the highest number of seats in Parliament together with the other recognized political parties or the independent groups.”

The 19th Amendment required the party/independent group with the highest number of seats in the parliament to close ranks with the party/independent group with ‘the second highest number of seats’, among others, to form a national government. But that requirement no longer exists. The party/independent group with the highest number of seats could form a national government by enlisting the support of the other recognized political parties or the independent groups. Thus, it is being argued in some quarters that the SLPP and the UNP can form a national government by securing the support of parties other than the SJB such as the TNA and the JVP-led NPP. Whether the government will be able to rope them in is doubtful.

President Wickremesinghe will not mind forming a national government, albeit for a different reason. Such an arrangement will strengthen his position, for it will help lessen his dependence on the SLPP, which is turning hostile towards him. If he can secure the support of a considerable number of Opposition MPs, his bargaining power will increase where his negotiations with the SLPP are concerned. But his dilemma is that he cannot secure the support of either the SJB or other parties to form a joint administration, and even if he manages to do so, he will incur public opprobrium for increasing the number of Cabinet and non-Cabinet ministers. There’s the rub.

The SLPP has not learned from the unprecedented socio-political upheavals that resulted from its failure to manage the economy properly, abuse of power, corruption, among other things, and is oblivious to public opinion, which is against the current administration. It is determined to reclaim the reins of power, without which it cannot prevent a further erosion of its support base, much less ready itself for elections. It is said that those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it.


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