The SLPP has failed to maintain the momentum it gained, early last year, when it scored a stunning win at the local government polls. Its spectacular electoral performance sent shockwaves through the government so much so that President Maithripala Sirisena opted for a honeymoon with it in a bid to arrest the erosion of the SLFP’s vote bank.
The abortive power grab in October last year, the subsequent developments and the deplorable conduct of some Joint Opposition (JO) MPs in Parliament, where they fought a losing battle in a desperate bid to muster a working majority, seem to have had a corrosive effect on the SLPP’s popularity, which is apparently on the wane.
The SLPP’s ‘Iwasuwa Ethi’ (Enough is enough) rally in Kandy, on March 08, did not attract big crowds much to the disappointment of its organisers. They expected a sea of heads. The SLPP has sought to make it out to be a huge success, but it cannot be considered as such by any stretch of the imagination in comparison to its mammoth rallies prior to its October debacle.
President Sirisena, who had to fight, on two fronts, against the UNP and the SLPP/JO, now has only one enemy—the UNP—to contend with. The SLPP-JO combine was all out to destroy Sirisena politically in a bid to take over the SLFP until October last year. Sirisena has made peace with the SLPP and pitted it against the UNP. It was a clever move.
The only way the SLPP can shore up its image and gain a turbo boost for its political project is to hold a successful May Day rally. But the UNP, having learnt its lessons and got revitalised to some extent will make an all-out effort to outdo the SLPP. If the SLPP conducts a separate May Day rally, the fragile unity of the SLFP-SLPP combine will suffer irreparably with only a few months to go for the presidential election.
The SLFP and the SLPP had a second round of talks at the Opposition Leader’s Office, on Thursday, as part of their efforts to forge a grand alliance against the UNP. The success of their talks will hinge on their ability reach an agreement on fielding a common presidential candidate. Whether they will be able to do so remains to be seen.
Woes of the SLPP
The SLPP proved, early last year, that it was stronger than both the UNP and the SLFP, put together, outside Parliament, but it cannot muster enough votes to defeat the government in the House. With the TNA’s 16 MPs, the UNF can easily secure a working majority (113) so secure the passage of Bills which requires only a simple majority for ratification. If defies comprehension why the SLPP continues to claim that it can topple the government.
The SLPP heavyweights claimed that they were capable of defeating the second reading of the budget in Parliament and create conditions for the declaration of a general election. No less a person than Opposition Leader Mahinda Rajapaksa went on record as having said so. But the government obtained a 43-vote majority. Rajapaksa cut a pathetic figure.
Worse, some SLFP seniors were prominent no-shows in the House when a division was called though they had agreed to vote against the government a few hours before. A split in the SLPP-SLFP combine has become evident.
The challenge before Rajapaksa and President Sirisena is to ensure that the UPFA MPs will vote en bloc against the budget when it is put to the vote on April 05.
A UNP ploy?
The ginger group of the UNP threatened to vote against the presidential expenditure heads in retaliation for what it called President Sirisena’s hostile actions against the UNP. Some young UNP backbenchers said, in public, that Sirisena would not have been able to secure the executive presidency without their party’s support and, therefore, he had to show some gratitude to the government. They said they wanted to teach him a lesson.
Senior UNPers including ministers insisted that nothing untoward would be allowed to happen and all UNF MPs had to back the government’s budget. The UNP rebels would have none of it and continue their campaign against the President. But the presidential expenditure heads were passed without a division though some UNP MPs wanted them to be put to the vote. Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe and Leader of the House Lakshman Kiriella made the rebels fall in line.
Now, the question is whether the UNP rebels’ efforts to vote against the President’s expenditure heads were orchestrated. The UNP may have got its ginger group to issue that threat by way of a warning to the SLFP MPs that if they joined the JO in voting against the second reading of the budget, the UNP would vote against the allocations for the President. Some of the key SLFP MPs kept away and the UNP reined its rebels in.
Gotabaya camp happy
Loyalists of former Defence Secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa, who has made known his intention to run for President have not taken kindly to the coming together of the SLPP and the SLFP. They know Sirisena is a contender for the presidency and he has joined forces with the SLPP with an ulterior motive, which is to enlist the support of the SLFP dissidents for his re-election bid.
The split in the SLPP-SLFP combine has warmed the cockles of many a heart in the Gotabaya camp, which seems to think having President Sirisena out of the way is half the battle in securing nomination for Gotabaya to contest the president election. But politics lacks predictability and Sirisena is made of sterner stuff and blessed with political acumen. He is known for lateral thinking and possessing an elusive mind. His biggest bargaining chip is his ability to contest the presidential election and ruin the chances of the SLPP candidate of winning. This must be a disconcerting proposition for the Gotabaya camp, which is trying to get rid of the SLFP and its leader.
Foreign Minister Tilak Marapana told the UNHRC what the TNA did not want to hear, on Wednesday. He countered the war crimes allegations against the Sri Lankan military and opposed the proposed hybrid war crimes tribunal.
TNA MPs were recently seen taking part in a protest march the Jaffna University undergraduates staged, demanding an international war crimes tribunal to probe the alleged war crimes. The TNA has convinced its constituency that by shoring up the UNP-led UNP government it will be able to make the latter honour its Geneva commitments including the setting up of a hybrid war crimes tribunal and introduce a new Constitution with enhanced devolution of powers and have a say in the development activities in the North and the East. The government has to humour the TNA to stay in power.
The government’s U-turn in Geneva will not be to the liking of the TNA, which has been flogging the issue of alleged war crimes to ward off the fringe groups eating into power base. The government has neither introduced a new Constitution nor honoured its Geneva commitments. It is echoing the views of the SLPP/JO at the UNHRC! What will be the TNA’s reaction?
The TNA is in a quandary; it is left with two options. It can either pull the plug on the cohabitation deal, causing the UNF government to come crashing down or continue to back it despite the latter’s about-turn in Geneva. It is not likely to bring down the government immediately for fear of the Rajapaksa camp capturing power and winning the next national election.
It may also be argued that the government may not have done what it did in Geneva, the other day, unbeknownst to the TNA. The UNF presidential candidate will have to secure the backing of the majority community besides the minority of votes if he is to win the presidency. The price the UNP has had to pay for co-sponsoring the UNHR resolution on Sri Lanka is considerable if the outcome of last year’s local government polls is any indication. It has to make a course correction if it is not lose another election.
The TNA cannot be unaware of the situation the UNP finds itself in and may, therefore, refrain from rocking the boat. However, it will have problems and challenges to contend with in the North.
The western governments behind the UNHRC resolution on Sri Lanka must be aware of the difficulties of the UNF government, which they backed to the hilt late last year. The appointment of a war crimes tribunal before the next Parliament election is the last thing the UNP wants. The US and its allies are, therefore, likely to soft-pedal war crimes issue for the time being without letting the Rajapaksas exploit the issue to win elections.
President Sirisena declared, before the collapse of the short-lived UPFA government late last year that he had some more trumps left, which, he said, he would use in time to come. He seems to have already used one; he has appointed a presidential commission of inquiry to probe the alleged irregularities under the present dispensation between 15th January 2015 and 31st December 2018.
President Sirisena has a special investigation unit under him and he must be privy to information about the yahapalana politicians’ wrongdoings. The findings of the presidential probe will be made public in time for the next presidential election.
The UNP managed to prevent the disclosure of the findings of a Committee on Public Enterprises (COPE) investigation into the first bond scam, before the August 2015 general election; it had President Sirisena dissolve Parliament. But this time around, it won’t be able do so and will have to face the revelations to be made by the ongoing presidential probe.
The President is already armed with two presidential committee reports, one on the bond scams under the UNF government and the other on corruption, abuse of power, etc. under the Rajapaksa government. The findings of the new presidential probe will provide him with more ammunition to be used against the UNP. This is a worrisome proposition for the UNF, which is still struggling to repair its image.