Sri Lanka may be experiencing various shortages, but it is never short of issues for public debate, the latest being President Ranil Wickremesinghe’s recent offer to devolve the police and land powers to the Provincial Councils. Everybody is nowtalking about the 13th Amendment to the Constitution. The President has since begun to blow hot and cold on the controversial issue, which however continues to occupy centre stage, and there is also much talk about 13 Plus, or Mahinda Rajapaksa’s promise to grant more powers to the provinces, when he was the President; he proposed a Senate consisting of the Chief Ministers of the nine Provinces.

Many Buddhist monks have already taken to the streets against the President’s undertaking to devolve the police and land powers, and some of them literally burnt a copy of the 13th Amendment in public, in Colombo, on Thursday. Most political parties are expressing various views both for and against the President’s offer. The issue is sure to last at least until the conclusion of the upcoming local government polls. The ongoing debate on devolution and 13 Plus has overshadowed an interesting development in politics—the prospect of another national government or what one may call ‘Yapalanalaya Plus’ coming into being.

No permanent enemies

Sri Lankan politicians have proved the veracity of the oft-used axiom that there are neither permanent friends nor permanent enemies in politics, and there are only permanent interests. In a dramatic turn of events, SLFP leader and former President Maithripala Sirisena has called for a national government and offered to join hands with President Wickremesinghe purportedly to help the country come out of the current economic crisis, which shows no signs of going away anytime soon. He said so in parliament on Thursday, commenting on the latest policy statement of the government presented by President Wickremesinghe on Wednesday. He questioned the President’s wisdom of undertaking to ensure the full implementation of the 13th Amendment at the present juncture. Using a pithy local idiom, which means ‘double trouble’ or double whammy, he said he wondered why on earth Wickremesinghe had opted to wield a ‘pandama (traditional torch) burning at both ends’. He sounded conciliatory, and appeared to be proffering some friendly advice to his erstwhile Yahapalana partner.

Curiously, Sirisena’s call for a government of national unity escaped the attention of political observers. Maybe, they tend to gloss over what Sirisena says, given his bad habit of going back on his statements at the first sign of trouble. It may also have been due to other issues making headlines and warranting comments. The brouhaha over President Wickremesinghe’s offer to implement the 13th Amendment to the Constitution fully has eclipsed most other issues.

What’s up Sirisena’s sleeve?

Why is Sirisena offering to join hands with the government to help break the back of the economic crisis and bring about ethnic reconciliation? It was not long ago that he sought to prevent the members of his parliamentary group from cooperating with the government, and even removed some of their positions in the SLFP for doing so. Almost all SLFP MPs have already joined the government, and Chandima Weerakkody, representing the Galle District, closed ranks with the SJB, last week.

Thus, Sirisena has lost hold on the SLFP parliamentary group to all intents and purposes, and when he offers to join hands with the government, he only makes a virtue of necessity. More importantly, he is trying to save his skin with the help of his offer. Being part of the government is the only way he could prevent criminal action being filed against him over the Easter Sunday carnage. The Supreme Court has ordered him to pay Rs. 100 million by way of compensation, and he says he is in the process of raising the required funds. But money is the least of his problems. If criminal charges were pressed against him and proved in court, he would have to languish in prison, and that would be the end of his political career as well.

The Catholic Church is cranking up pressure on the government to ensure that criminal proceedings are instituted against Sirisena in keeping with the recommendations of the Presidential Commission of Inquiry, which probed the Easter Sunday terror attacks, and on the basis of the recent Supreme Court order that Sirisena pay compensation to the victims of the carnage, which could have been prevented. He knows there is no love lost between him and President Wickremesinghe due to his hostility towards the latter during the second half of the Yahapalana rule, and that if he continues to take on the government, the way he used to do, he will run the risk of facing criminal charges, for the police and the state prosecutor do the government’s bidding, as is public knowledge. If the SLFP closes ranks with the SLPP-UNP administration, Sirisena can rest assured that he will not have to face criminal charges.

 The Yahapalana government (2015-2019) had, as its main constituents, the UNP and the SLFP. When they entered into a political marriage of convenience, after Sirisena’s victory at the 2015 presidential election, the Rajapaksas and their loyalists protested and formed what came to be known as the Joint Opposition in the parliament and formed the SLPP in 2016.

After the SLPP’s impressive victory at the 2018 local government polls, Sirisena fell out with the UNP, smoked the peace pipe with the Rajapaksa family, whose members he had once vowed to throw behind bars, and tried to oust the then Prime Minister Wickremesinghe, who enabled him to achieve his presidential dream. Former President Mahinda Rajapaksa, whom President Sirisena hurriedly appointed Prime Minister in October 2018, had to resign a few weeks later, unable to muster a working majority in the House, but the abortive attempt to grab power cemented the links between the SLFP and the SLPP to the extent of the two parties contesting the 2020 general election as an alliance. Their relations have since turned sour with the SLPP opting to share power with Wickremesinghe and forging an electoral alliance with the UNP.

Political straws

The ruling SLPP-UNP coalition is in such a desperate situation that it will clutch at any political straw. If the government accepts Sirisena’s offer, then the SLPP and the UNP will be able to form joint administrations in some of the local councils, which are expected to be hung. The prospect of the three parties coming together is detrimental to the interests of the newly-formed People’s Freedom Alliance (PFA), consisting of the SLFP and the SLPP dissidents because the anti-government voters will be wary of voting for the PFA in the local government areas, where it has entered into electoral pacts with the SLFP, which is making overtures to the government. The PFA suffered a severe setback when the SLFP declared that it would go it alone at the upcoming local council elections in most areas. It has no vote base as such and will have to eat into the SLPP’s to secure seats; it will face stiff competition from the JVP-led NPP, which has become popular.

Thus, there is the likelihood of the government opting to have the SLFP as a partner in governance for expediency rather than anything else. If such an alliance comes into being with the UNP, the SLFP and the Rajapaksas’ SLPP sharing power, it could be called ‘Yahapalana Plus’ because the original Yahapalana administration had only the UNP and the SLFP.


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