There are no permanent friends or enemies in politics, only permanent interests.


President Ranil Wickremesinghe’s defence of Health Minister Keheliya Rambukwella is an interesting phenomenon. A No-confidence Motion (NCM) against the minister is in progress at the time of writing but, while Rambukwella is likely to survive this vote, it is the politics behind the move that is fascinating.

To begin with, Rambukwella, although representing Wickremesinghe’s United National Party (UNP) previously, is no dyed-in-the wool UNPer. In fact, he was one of the few who, along with Lalith Athulathmudali and Gamini Dissanayake, split from the party and joined the then newly formed Democratic United National Front (DUNF).

The DUNF died a natural death after the untimely demise of Athulathmudali and Dissanayake’s return to the UNP after Ranasinghe Premadasa’s assassination. Rambukwella also returned and was elected to Parliament for the first time in 2000, as an opposition MP.

Being in the opposition was not much fun for Rambukwella who in 2004 deserted then UNP leader Ranil Wickremesinghe and crossed over to the government headed by Chandrika Kumaratunga, where Mahinda Rajapaksa was Prime Minister.

He has stayed loyal to the Rajapaksas since then, being a minister first under Mahinda and then under Gotabaya Rajapaksa. Being media spokesman for the government and Media minister, he wielded considerable power and influence which he used extensively to lambast Wickremesinghe from time to time as the latter and his UNP languished in the opposition until 2015.


Given this tenuous relationship, one wouldn’t expect Wickremesinghe to go out of his way to protect Rambukwella. After all, if the problems in the health sector reach crisis proportion it would be Wickremesinghe, as President, who would have to bear of the public’s wrath which is significant even now. Even if he doesn’t do any special favours, Wickremesinghe could have nipped the crisis in the bud by effecting a minor Cabinet reshuffle and replacing Rambukwella for instance with Ramesh Pathirana, who commands respect among the medical profession and is also a doctor, to boot.


Wickremesinghe has not done so. Instead he has chosen to back Rambukwella. He is not attempting to throw Rambukwella to the wolves either with the NCM. He has ordered that the overseas leave of all government parliamentarians has been cancelled, to ensure that the government has enough numbers to defeat the NCM, even if some disgruntled MPs of the ruling Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP) might vote in support of the motion.

Wickremesinghe is adhering to the age-old adage in politics that there are no permanent friends or enemies, only permanent interests. In doing so, he is also sending a strong signal to those SLPP parliamentarians he is trying to woo to support him at the next presidential elections.

Wickremesinghe is demonstrating that he will protect anyone- even a previous opponent- if they are prepared to support him at this juncture. This, he has already proved in ample measure by his stoic defence of the Rajapaksa clan and by going slow in the investigations against them, not only now as President but even when he was Prime Minister under Maithripala Sirisena who would have gladly crucified the Rajapaksas if he could.

What is also interesting about the NCM against Rambukwella is who will vote for and against the NCM, especially from the SLPP’s ranks. Now split into several factions, there are several ‘independent’ groups functioning within the group of parliamentarians who were elected on the SLPP ticket at the last general election.

They include the outfits led by Wimal Weerawansa and Udaya Gammanpila as well the faction led by Dullas Allahpperuma and G.L. Peiris. The latest addition is the group led by Anura Priyadarshana Yapa although they are now firmly in the Wickremesinghe camp and will vote against the NCM.


These groups all want to impress upon voters that they are not part of the corrupt political set up synonymous with the Rajapaksas. However, to prove that to the public they will have to vote for the NCM. Whether they will have the courage to do so remains to be seen.


Yet another fascinating facet of this NCM is the big question on the minds of the leadership of the Samagi Jana Balavegaya (SJB) which moved the motion. Its de facto spokesman for the subject of Health is Rajitha Senaratne. The former Minister of Health has hinted over and over again that he would like his old job back and said that if his entrusted with the task, he can get the health sector back on track. He hasn’t been shy to say so either, making statements to that effect several times in public.


Indeed, Senaratne is the No.1 target of the government on the list of MPs to be poached from the SJB. Therefore, if the NCM does succeed and Rambukwella has to quit, the SJB could see Senaratne join the government because of the motion it put forward! While this is theoretically still possible, the SJB is not too worried about it at this time because all calculations point to Rambukwella surviving the vote.


However, there were whispers in the corridors of power that some ruling party parliamentarians were planning to keep away from the vote. This was because they were concerned about a possible public backlash for supporting Rambukwella in the face of arguably the worst crisis Sri Lanka’s health sector has seen since independence.


The country has, despite its status as a developing nation, always maintained a free health service for its citizens which has been of a very high standard, comparable to services provided even in developed countries. In fact, it was the envy of all countries in the South Asian region.

The depths to which it has descended in recent years has been unfathomable and is now being felt by the average citizen. Issues such as the deaths of patients are emotive topics and some ruling party parliamentarians did not wish to be associated with a minister who is perceived as being insensitive. Hence their reluctance to support him.


Even if the final vote on the NCM does not evict Keheliya Rambukwella from his ministerial seat, it will be a test of strength for the government- and indeed the opposition.