The SJB, which handed over a motion of no-confidence against Health Minister Keheliya Rambukwella to Speaker Mahinda Yapa Abeywardena, on 21 July, has since got cold feet. It has stopped short of having it taken up for debate for obvious reasons. There is no way it can muster enough votes for it to be ratified; the government still has a comfortable majority in the House, and the Opposition has not been able to defeat a single Bill in the current parliament.

Even some Opposition MPs, such as Pivithuru Hela Urumaya leader and dissident SLPP MP Udaya Gammanpila, have questioned the SJB’s wisdom of moving a no-faith motion, which, they have argued, will only help strengthen Minister Rambukwella’s hands against his political opponents who want him ousted. President Ranil Wickremesinghe himself has ridiculed the SJB for having undertaken something it cannot accomplish. Speaking in Parliament, recently, he dared the Opposition to proceed with the no-faith motion at issue, and claimed that before pushing for the Local Government elections, the Opposition had to secure the passage of that no-faith motion.

Fresh rallying point for govt.

A no-faith motion also serves as a fresh rallying point for a beleaguered government, for all its MPs are compelled to join forces to defend the minister under fire for their own sake rather than anyone else’s; they know if they break ranks and vote with the Opposition, they will run the risk of facing expulsion from their party and being paid back in the same coin in case of no-confidence motions being moved against them.

So, whenever a no-faith motion is put to the vote in Parliament, the ruling party MPs sink their differences and go flat out to defeat it.

The only purpose such a motion serves for the rivals of the government is that the Opposition gets an opportunity to tear the minister concerned to shreds during the debate on it. But the question is whether the public takes what transpires in the House on such occasions seriously, because the members of both sides of the House trade insults and abuse instead of trying to prove or disprove the charges stated in the no-confidence motion. Debates on no-faith motions invariably become slanging matches and leave the public none the wiser, and the ministers who face them use their defeats to gain political mileage.

Majorities deceptive

A parliamentary majority is not necessarily proof of the stability of the government in power. There have been instances where the government retained even huge majorities in the House but lacked popular support and suffered humiliating defeats at elections.

The UNP-led Yahapalana government (2015-19) had a comfortable parliamentary majority, remained stable and secured the passage of Bills, even after losing the 2018 Local Government elections badly although the SLPP’s popularity was on the rise. But the UNP and its allies lost the 2019 presidential election, and the UNP faced a crushing defeat at the 2020 general election; its leader Wickremesinghe lost his seat, and his party was reduced to a single National List slot.

The SLFP-led United Front government (1970-77) also had a two-thirds majority in the House, and even misused it to extend the life of Parliament by two years in 1975, but it was trounced at the 1977 general election, where the SLFP could obtain only eight seats as opposed to the UNP’s 140 (five-sixths majority) and the TULF’s 18.

The SLFP-led UPFA mustered a two-thirds majority in Parliament in 2010 with the help of several defectors, but President Mahinda Rajapaksa lost the 2015 presidential election, causing the collapse of the UFPA government. The SLPP government secured a two-thirds majority under President Gotabaya Rajapaksa in 2020, of course with the help of crossovers, but crashed last year after President Rajapaksa’s ouster. So much for parliamentary majorities and the stability of governments!

The incumbent UNP-SLPP government is also making the most of its parliamentary majority raised with the help of some defectors from the SJB and the SLFP to pass vital Bills, motions, resolutions, etc., despite its increasing unpopularity, which has caused it to postpone elections indefinitely for fear of losing them.

Change in SJB’s strategy

The SJB has apparently realized that its no-faith motion will only cause it to lose face, if put to the vote, and Minister Rambukwella will have the last laugh. It has therefore changed its strategy. Instead of having the motion taken up for debate, it has launched a public petition against Minister Rambukwella, and is collecting signatures for it. This may be considered a smart move in that it will help the SJB drum up anti-government sentiments, and gain some political traction, which is in need of.

The SJB’s political move is similar to what is known as the ‘flanking manoeuvre’ which armies employ in offensive warfare to take advantage of their enemies’ weaknesses. In a flanking manoeuvre, attackers take a circuitous route to move around the enemy’s defensive positions and attack them from the side or rear, thus putting the defenders at a disadvantage. The SLPP and the UNP are weak on the political front, despite their parliamentary strength, and the SJB’s decision to shift the battle from the parliament to the political front could be considered well thought-out.

Tapping public anger

The SJB can now tap people’s rising anger at the government and gain some political mileage. It is having its petition signed mostly near government hospitals, and almost all the people who visit those places are resentful because everything is in short supply in the state-run health institutions, and now the unprecedented mass migration of doctors is pushing the publicly-funded healthcare systems to the brink of collapse. The government has come under heavy fire for doing nothing to prevent brain drain. Patients, who are in dire financial straits, have to buy expensive medicines which are not available in government hospitals. There have been several deaths which have been attributed to the procurement of substandard drugs under the current administration.

It will not be difficult for the SJB to direct the people’s ire at the Health Minister and obtain a large number of signatures for its petition, which can then be flaunted as an expression of people’s lack of faith not only in the Health Minister but also the entire government.

A public petition will also help the SJB mobilize its supporters, and keep their morale from sagging. The SJB has had to compete with not only the government but also the JVP, which is politically active and carrying out an effective anti-government campaign. The SLPP dissidents will also vie with the SJB at future elections, unless they coalesce or enter into some kind of electoral pact, like the one the UNP and the SLPP mulled over before the postponement of the Local Government elections.

The government was obviously planning to make short work of the motion of no confidence against Minister Ramukwella and humiliate the Opposition. But the SJB’s petition drive has made its plan go awry.

The government, too, will have to change its strategy to counter the SJB campaign. How it seeks to do so remains to be seen.