The No Confidence Motion (NCM) against Energy Minister Udaya Gammanpila is now history but it has raised more questions than answers- ironically, not for Gammanpila but for the main opposition party, the Samagi Jana Balavegaya (SJB) and its leader, Sajith Premadasa.

The NCM was instigated by the opposition party after it appeared that there were differences of opinion in the ruling Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP) about the recent fuel hike. In fact, the general secretary of the SLPP and National List parliamentarian Sagara Kariyawsam blamed Gammanpila for the fuel price hike and called for his resignation.

There were others adding their two cents worth. For instance, State Minister Nimal Lanza declared that had Basil Rajapaksa been in Parliament and Cabinet, there would have been no need for a fuel price hike. It seemed a perfect setting to divide the ruling coalition of which Gammanpila is a leader of a constituent party, the Pivithuru Hela Urumaya (PHU).

No one really expected the NCM to succeed. The ruling party has a near two-thirds majority in Parliament. In fact, it had demonstrated that, if the occasion calls for it, as it did when the 20th Amendment to the Constitution was put to the vote, it can indeed muster a two-thirds majority. So, the NCM was never about being successful and ousting Gammanpila from ministerial office.

It was about highlighting the divisions within the government and getting valuable airtime in the media to bash its leaders about its general mishandling of the economy and the fuel price increase in particular.

The opposition did get the airtime it wanted but much of it exposed the lack of unity within its own ranks and cast aspersions about Premadasa’s effectiveness as Leader of the Opposition- while the government closed ranks around Gammanpila and spoke in one voice in his support.

First, there was United National Party (UNP) leader and former Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe. He tried to show his punditry in parliamentary politics by attempting to amend the NCM, so that it was against the entire Cabinet of Ministers, on the basis that the fuel price hike was endorsed by the cabinet.

That suggestion was promptly shot down by Speaker Mahinda Yapa Abeywardena but Wickremesinghe’s message to the SJB was blunt and clear: do not expect me to blindly toe your line, just because the SJB has more numbers in Parliament.

In other words, he was saying ‘consult me first if you want my support’. No one from the SJB apparently made that effort in the lead up to the NCM, despite the former Premier being their former leader when they were in the United National Party (UNP) and still being on cordial terms with most of them. Wickremesinghe did however, vote in support of the NCM.

Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) leader Anura Kumara Dissanayake was more scathing in his assessment. He noted that the NCM was ill thought out in terms of political strategy, was designed to be a ‘media show’, was ‘unwise’ and the only objective it achieved was to unify the government against the opposition. The fact that he said it aloud during the debate in Parliament was a slap in the face of the SJB. Again, it appeared that the SJB had not maintained any dialogue with their JVP parliamentary colleagues before moving the NCM, although the issue was canvassed heavily in the media prior to that.

What this means is that Premadasa, still new to the role of Leader of the Opposition, has a lot to learn in the thrust and parry of parliamentary politics. That should not be so. He has now been a Member of Parliament of over twenty years. Much of that time has been spent not on government benches but in the opposition.

It is true that when he was in the UNP, he was marginalised and kept away from the ‘inner Cabinet’ by Wickremesinghe for obvious reasons- he feared a challenge from Premadasa. Even when the UNP was in government- briefly from 2001 to 2004 and then during the Maithripala Sirisena led administration from 2015 to 2019, he was assigned ministries such as Housing, Construction and Cultural Affairs, not the type of portfolios that shape the policy and direction of the government. Nevertheless, he cannot complain that he hasn’t had ample time to learn.

In his current role as Leader of the Opposition, at a time when the Rajapaksa government has become manifestly unpopular for a variety of reasons within a very short period of time, Premadasa has been seen as inactive, indecisive and not being dynamic enough to take the fight to the Rajapaksa regime and challenge them on key issues, especially outside Parliament. For example, even the current spate of trade union actions has little or no input from the SJB and appear to have more impetus from the JVP.

Some of his actions have also called into question his judgment. For instance, he made a statement that he would not be vaccinated against the corona virus ‘until every citizen in the country has access to the vaccine’. That is not the best option, both from a purely medical perspective and from a political point of view because it cast him in poor light as a person who is attempting to politicise the pandemic. In the end, he did contract the disease and had to spend time away to recover and recuperate.

Among the general public, there is a palpable sense of anger and hostility towards the government. That however is mixed with an equally intense sense of frustration at the opposition in general and Premadasa in particular. That frustration is due in part due to the perception that Premadasa does not have a vision, a plan of action or a statesmanlike approach to issues.

The next major elections- presidential and general are due in 2024 and 2025- and they will be upon us in next to no time. The reality is that, Premadasa needs to step up to the challenge and lift his game to confront the juggernaut that is the Rajapaksa regime.

Or else, the decline into the abyss of a one party, one family state will be but a short step.


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