Special Task Force officials walk past a mosque that was destroyed during the riots in Kandy on March 08, 2018.

It never rains but it pours. There seems to be no end in sight to the problems besetting the yahapalana government, which is like a house on a land acquired for a road widening project; it exists on borrowed time.

President Maithripala Sirisena seems to be playing his cards well. Before the February 10 mini polls, the UNP had been busy undermining his position in the unity government. Some of the UNP ministers turned so hostile towards the President’s men and women that they went so far as to ask their SLFP counterparts in the Cabinet to leave the government. But, following the recent local government (LG) polls disaster, President Sirisena has craftily turned the tables on the UNP. He has not only distracted public attention from his party’s ignominious drubbing but also put the UNP and the PM on the back foot. Some political commentators expected it to be other way around; they thought the PM, whose party became the runner-up in the LG race, would make use of the President’s predicament to consolidate his power in the government. But, the President was quicker on the draw.

President Sirisena killed two birds with one stone. He knew hordes (aka SLFP dissidents seeking his ouster)would be at the gate soon after his polls debacle. He tactfully held out an olive branch to the victorious Joint Opposition (JO) big guns, giving them the hope that he and they could join forces to sack the PM and form an SLFP-led government. Thus, he got his pursuers to chase after the PM, who had to run as fast as his legs could carry. Sirisena ensured that he wouldn’t be seen to be beleaguered in spite of his crushing defeat. He projected himself as being in control of the situation. He not only survived the immediate aftermath of the polls debacle without giving the JO an opportunity to lay siege to the SLFP headquarters but also prevented the UNP from undermining his position further.

Ranil Wickremesinghe, Leader of the United National Party with Sri Lanka's President Maithripala Sirisena during the ceremony to swear in Wickremesinghe as Sri Lanka's new Prime Minister in 2015.
Ranil Wickremesinghe, Leader of the United National Party with Sri Lanka’s President Maithripala Sirisena during the ceremony to swear in Wickremesinghe as Sri Lanka’s new Prime Minister in 2015.

One cannot dismiss as baseless the claim being made in some quarters that President Sirisena came under tremendous pressure from some foreign governments to refrain from rocking the boat and opt for rapprochement with the PM. There was a sudden flurry of diplomatic activity in Colombo after the conclusion of the LG polls. However, the fact remains that President Sirisena did a Houdini; he wriggled out of an extremely difficult situation at the expense of the PM.

President Sirisena, however, is not safe in the SLFP—far from it. His enemies are sure to return in a bid to wrest control of the party. He is not in a position to offer resistance and there is the likelihood of some of his loyalists decamping; they know which side their bread is buttered and, more than anything else, when to decamp.

Elusive mind

It is not clear whether President Sirisena actually wanted to get rid of PM Wickremesinghe, but he surely managed to unsettle and tame the latter. He adopted, in a manner of speaking, the same modus operandi as professional elephant tamers, in dealing with the leader of the Jumbo party. Elephant handlers use a method called ‘crushing’ to break the spirits of the pachyderms in captivity and make them submissive. The PM also had several SLFP ministers inveighing against him and blaming him for the government’s defeat. Now, the PM is being attacked by a section of his own parliamentary group. The process of ‘crushing’ doesn’t seem to be overfor him! He, to his credit, remains unfazed or, at least, pretends to be so.

Former cop turned State Minister Palitha Range Bandara, who has fallen from grace, even threatened to move a motion of no confidence against PM Wickremesinghe, about two weeks ago. He said he had the backing of enough UNP MPs for the move. However, now they don’t seem so keen as to move a no-faith vote against Wickremesinghe. Instead, they have indicated their willingness to consider supporting a no-confidence motion the JO has undertaken to move against the PM.

The JO seems to be all at sea. It declared that it would get rid of the PM. But, it has decided to put its anti-Ranil campaign on hold purportedly in view of the anti-Muslim violence in Kandy. It is still collecting signatures for the motion to be submitted to Speaker Karu Jayasuriya. Whether it will be able to muster enough numbers to ensure the passage of the motion remains to be seen. The odds are not in favour of it.

The UNP’s problem is not so much the no-confidence motion to be moved against the PM; it may be torpedoed in Parliament. Instead, the party must be more worried about the growing dissension within its ranks. This is not something it bargained for. The fact that some UNP MPs have, as bold as brass, sought to oust their leader is fraught with the danger of rendering the government still more unstable and weakening the UNP further.

Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe speaks during a news conference after the local government election in 2017.
Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe speaks during a news conference after the local government election in 2017.

Usually, a political party leader happens to contend with challenges to his leadership when he is out of power. Wickremesinghe survived numerous attempts to knock him off his perch during his Opposition days. Even Sirikotha came under attack by a group of frustrated party members who were desperate to get rid of him. He may have thought his trouble was over when he steered his party to victory in 2015 and became the PM.But, the problems haven’t gone away. All signs are that they won’t in the foreseeable future. In fact, the situation has apparently taken a turn for the worse. He is now faced with a double whammy.

No-faith motion and SLFP

What will be the SLFP’s reaction to the no-faith motion against the PM? It is in a quandary. If it backs the motion, it won’t be able to continue to work with him in case he survives the move to remove him. The chances are that the PM will succeed in defeating the motion, given the backing he receives from the TNA whenever he gets into hot water. The dissident UNP MPs are bound by party discipline and will run the risk of being expelled if they vote for the no-faith motion against the party leader. Therefore, they may choose to tread cautiously without putting their necks on the block.

The JVP, too, is not likely to back the no-confidence motion; it has already put forth some conditions which the JO cannot meet for voting for supporting the motion. The JVP knows more than one way to skin a cat. The PM is not its Enemy No. 1. On other hand, it doesn’t want the UNP to sort out its leadership crisis and emerge stronger under a new leader. It is dependent on pressure build-ups in the polity to gain turbo boosts for its ultra-radical political project from time to time. It thrives on chaos. It finds the present situation ideal for shoring up it electoral fortunes. The government is floundering and public resentment is palpable. If the SLPP/JO manages to get rid of the PM, grab the SLFP leadership and topple the government the pressure will escape with people being given the hope of a new beginning.

A similar situation occurred in 2000/01 with the Kumaratunga administration struggling for survival due to mass crossovers. The JVP moved in, offering to bring order out of chaos. It offered conditional support to the crumbling regime and gained a great deal of political traction in the process. The government collapsed a few months later and at the election that followed the number of JVP MPs increased from 10 to 16 Therefore, the JVP is likely to find an excuse at the eleventh hour for refraining from supporting the JO’s no-faith motion against the PM the way it refused to take part in the 1980 general strike against the J. R. Jayewardene government.

If the SLFP votes against the no-faith motion to be moved against the PM its action will be construed as a reaffirmation of its confidence in him; in such an eventuality it will have contradicted its much-publicised claim that Wickremesinghe is not fit enough to function as the Prime Minister.

That said, it needs to be added that it is well-nigh impossible to read President Sirisena’s elusive mind let alone get inside it. Rarely does he take a firm stand on any issue. He is known for his fickle behaviour and frequent backtracking. Before the LG polls, he vowed to take over economic management but that pledge is far from fulfilled. At times he extols the virtues of consensual governance and in the same breath he promises to form an SLFP government. A few days prior to the local government elections, he said there were no permanent friends or permanent enemies in politics; there were only permanent interests. Whether he will be guided by this threadbare aphorism, as it were, in deciding on the vote of no confidence against the PM or not remains to be seen.

One may recall that President Sirisena had no qualms about appointing a presidential commission of inquiry to probe the bond scams. His action went down well with the public but ruined PM Wickremesinghe’s image and the UNP’s chances of winning an election. What’s up his sleeve is difficult to guess.

 Communal violence

President Sirisena has declared a state of emergency for one week on account of communal disturbances. Restrictions have also been imposed on some social media organs as part of what the government calls a strategy to prevent incendiary propaganda which fuels racial tensions. One of the main advantages the yahapalana camp had over the Rajapaksa government was its liberal outlook. It was seen to be minority friendly. One of the issues it flogged very effectively to secure the backing of the ethnic minorities for winning elections was communal violence against Muslims in Aluthgama in 2014. But, today, it is in the dock with Muslims having already come under three attacks in the Southern, Eastern and Central Provinces during the last few months. The latest one, which plunged part of the Kandy District into turmoil, couldn’t have come at a worse time the Sirisena-Wickremesinghe government.

The UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC) is in session and international media focus is on Sri Lanka. The dastardly attacks on Muslims are sure to be taken up in Geneva and the Sri Lankan delegation will have a hard time, defending the government, which has not yet fulfilled some of its key Geneva commitments including the setting up of a hybrid war crimes tribunal.

The government’s failure to hold ethno-religious fanatics at bay will severely erode the faith the Muslim community has reposed in the UNP as well as the SLFP.

The main challenge before the government is to make good on its pre-election pledge to defeat the far right outfits decisively and bring about national reconciliation. Ironically, some of its prominent members stand accused of having links to those responsible for anti-Muslim riots. The same allegation was leveled against the Rajapaksa administration. Whoever would have thought the yahapalana administration would come under pressure from the international community to protect minorities? The US has issued a media statement calling upon it to ensure the safety of the Muslim community and lift emergency as soon as possible.

2015, newly appointed Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe with Sri Lanka's President Maithripala Sirisena .
2015, newly appointed Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe with Sri Lanka’s President Maithripala Sirisena .

The government is in an unenviable position on the ethnic front. Pressure is mounting on it to fulfill its obligations under the UNHRC resolution on Sri Lanka, which it over enthusiastically co-sponsored in 2015.  Unless it goes the whole hog to set up a war crimes tribunal its allies like the Tamil National Alliance (TNA) won’t be able to go on backing it.  The TNA itself is faced with serious problems in the North and the East, where its rivals are demanding that the government honour its Geneva undertakings.

Cost of political instability

Political instability and the debilitation of the economy go hand in hand. Chaos on the political front eats into the vitals of the economy like a cancer. It has already taken its toll on investor confidence and the dwindling foreign reserves have caused the rupee to tumble further. This situation is bound to send the general prices level up as the country is dependent on imports and aggravate its balance of payment woes. The economy is likely to be trapped in a vicious cycle unless this trend is arrested.

Prime Minister Wickremesinghe, addressing a recent investment summit in Singapore, tried to paint a rosy picture of the domestic political situation. He can’t be faulted for that. What else could he do? He said the National Government had
come to stay. But, it is said that you can’t catch old birds with chaff. Investors are concerned about the safety of their money and, therefore, closely monitor the politico-economic situation here and, therefore, they are au fait with it. The slightest indication of trouble puts them off. President Sirisena’s declaration before the LG polls that trillions of rupees obtained by way of loans had gone missing under the previous regime also dealt a severe blow to investor confidence.

The political fallout of the country’s worsening economic situation is bound to take a heavy toll on the government’s electoral performance in the future. This is a worrisome proposition for both the UNP and the SLFP. They can only hope that their mutual enemy, the SLPP, will mismanage its electoral gains and squander the opportunities that have presented themselves. Hope springs eternal.



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