The Opposition’s motion of no confidence against Health Minister Keheliya Rambukwella over the sorry state of affairs in the public health sector is to be taken up for debate in the parliament shortly. It is scheduled to be put to the vote on Friday. The government says it is confident of defeating it with a comfortable majority. The Opposition would have the public believe that it is capable of springing a surprise for the SLPP-UNP administration on Friday. There is no dearth of rhetoric in the parliament.

Whatever the outcome of the no-faith motion may be, there is no way the government can deny the fact that it has manifestly failed to arrest the deterioration of the public health sector, which is plagued by shortages of all sorts, mismanagement and corruption.

The mass migration of doctors has aggravated the situation in the health sector, with some government hospitals facing the prospect of closure for want of medical personnel. Dozens of doctors have left the country even without obtaining permission from the Health Ministry.  Some medical graduates have not taken up post-intern appointments; they are believed to have left the country.

The Government Medical Officers’ Association has warned that many more doctors will leave the country in time to come and the collapse of the state health sector is imminent. Health workers and their trade unions are protesting against rampant corruption in the Health Ministry; they insist that the procurement of inferior quality drugs and equipment poses a grave danger to the lives of patients. They have attributed several deaths to the use of substandard drugs in government hospitals.

One should not be so naïve as to expect the SLPP to throw Rambukwella to the wolves or some government MPs to break ranks with the SLPP and vote for the no-faith motion on Friday.

Rambukwella is lucky that the government considers the no-faith motion a threat to its own survival rather than a move to oust an individual minister.

The SLPP parliamentary group, save its dissident faction members, will go all out to defeat the no-faith motion. Odds are that the nays will far outnumber the ayes, and Rambukwella will emerge unscathed in the parliament. The government has been able to muster about 120 votes or more in the House consistently for its Bills and resolutions.

Fresh rallying point for govt.

The no-faith motion against the Health Minister is viewed in some quarters as an ill-conceived move on the part of the Opposition in that it has provided the faction-ridden, beleaguered government with a fresh rallying point. This argument is not untenable. The SLPP MPs will now be compelled to sink their differences and defend Rambukwella although some of them are not well-disposed towards him.

Most State Ministers are at loggerheads with their Ministers, whom they consider domineering. State Minister for Ports and Aviation Premalal Jayasekera has been publicly criticizing Minister of Ports, Shipping and Aviation Nimal Siripala de Silva, and exposed a questionable land deal, which, he says, has caused a huge loss to the Colombo Port. Such clashes among government politicians abound, but the warring SLPP parliamentary group members will make common cause and defend Keheliya because they do not want the government to suffer a setback, which will adversely impact their collective future.


Adversity and unity

It is however doubtful whether the government MPs will remain united until the next election. Unity that adversity brings about is usually short-lived.

In October 2018, the then President Maithripala Sirisena’s abortive bid to oust the UNP-led government, with the help of Mahinda Rajapaksa, had a unifying effect on the UNP, which was reeling from a crushing defeat at the local government elections. If not for Sirisena’s hostile action, the UNP’s leadership struggle would have come to a head much earlier. Sajith Premadasa, who was the Deputy Leader of the UNP at the time, had fallen out with his leader Wickremesinghe, but he threw his weight behind the latter and led the UNP’s battle against Sirisena from the front. He made the most of the crisis to shore up his image and endear himself to the party’s rank and file. Many people thought the UNP would be able to revitalize itself and recover lost ground, but it suffered a crippling split the following year.

Some SLPP MPs have switched their allegiance to President Wickremesinghe and are openly praising him much to the annoyance of the Rajapaksa loyalists. Among them are several senior ministers, who were once very close to the Rajapaksa family. All signs are that another group of SLPP MPs will decamp ahead of the next presidential election in case the SLPP and the UNP part their ways. The SLPP has said it will field its own presidential candidate, and the UNP has already declared that President Wickremesinghe will contest the next presidential election. Speculation is rife in political circles that some SLPP MPs will join the SJB as well.

SJB opens another front

The SJB cannot be unaware that the government has enough numbers to defeat its no-faith motion. If so, why has it undertaken to try to oust Minister Rambukwella? It has sought to kill three birds with one stone, in a manner of speaking. The debate on the no-confidence motion will provide it with an opportunity to tear into the government and score political points; the public petition it launched against the Health Minister has helped mobilize its rank and file, and the members of the public in an anti-government campaign, and, above all, having already collected tens of thousands of signatures at various places, it can use its petition to bolster its claim that the people have lost their faith in the government.

Rise in govt.’s stock unlikely

The government is said to be doing it best to engineer some crossovers from the Opposition ahead of Friday’s vote. It might succeed in its endeavor. But winning parliamentary votes will not improve its stock. What matters most in politics is popular support. A parliamentary majority does not necessarily signify the popularity or stability of a government.

The UNP-led Yahapalana government retained a working majority in the parliament even after its humiliating defeat at the 2018 local government polls and the subsequent pull-out of the UPFA led by President Sirisena. But the UNP badly lost the presidential election in 2019; it was reduced to a single National List seat at the general election the following year.

The government may score another win in the parliament on Friday, but its worries will not go away.