2019: More of the same

The year 2018 will go down in history as the year in which a president, elected to serve the people, put self-preservation before national interest and in doing so caused irreparable damage to the country’s wellbeing and international standing.

The repercussions of this unprecedented coup executed by none other than the President of the country will be felt throughout 2019 as the country heads for a watershed presidential poll towards the end of 2019. For all intents and purposes, the failed coup has all but sealed President Sirisena’s political fate and he is likely to be the first living President that failed to muster a second term.

2018 will also be remembered as the year in which the two major parties, the United National Party (UNP) and Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP), received shock treatment at the hands of the infantile Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP). The local government poll conducted in February saw the emergence of the SLPP as a formidable opponent to both the mainstream parties. The irony of it all however was that 10 months down the line, despite video evidence to the contrary, the founders of the SLPP are claiming that they are not members of the party.
The year will also be remembered for the sheer survival skills of Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe. Having survived a No-confidence Motion in Parliament in April against the backdrop of the party’s rout at the local government polls, he comfortably got over many a hurdle during the year with clear majority support in Parliament.
However, the Mahinda Rajapaksa-led Joint Opposition continuously challenged this majority, even disrupting Parliament and halting proceedings on multiple occasions. Things came to a head when President Sirisena installed Mahinda Rajapaksa as the Prime Minister with Parliament thereafter descending into utter chaos. 2018 will go down in history as the year in which Parliament hit the nadir with members resorting to blatant thuggery and the custodian of Parliament – the Speaker – having to be shielded by dozens of policemen inside the chamber.
However, the silver lining to the doom and gloom was the rise of the independent commissions established under the 19th Amendment and the restoration of the independence of the judiciary, signalling that the country was finally headed in the right direction.
Nevertheless, with Friday’s gazette announcing the institutions listed under each ministry, the chaos seems far from over with fresh clashes likely over the allocations made. While the President allocated for himself 43 key institutions including the Police Department and the Government Printer, the 24 institutions allocated to the Prime Minister mostly consists of training institutes.
It is also noteworthy that 48 institutions including the Central Bank, General Treasury, all state enterprises, and the state media institutes have been listed under the Finance and Media Ministry portfolio held by Mangala Samaraweera, making him by far the most powerful cabinet minister.
Needless to say, the composition of Cabinet left much to be desired and it is no secret that powerful ministries were allocated to proven non-performers. Matters have now been made worse with the lopsided allocation of institutions to ministries.
The year ahead will be a make or break year for the UNP and indications are that the President is not going to let the Government he heads have its own way. With the Police remaining under the President, it will be interesting to see how the investigations on the excesses of the previous regime proceed.
This is in a backdrop of the President making no secret of his overtures to the Rajapaksas and the SLPP for his political survival while the very survival of the UNP’s political fortunes will bank on the successful completion and subsequent prosecution of at least some of the high profile cases.
Not to forget the allegations of bribery, corruption, and misuse of public funds levelled against members of the UNP by the President that will now most likely be pushed by him.
There is no hiding the fact that a serious conflict of interest has arisen with the President controlling the Police while he is also wooing a political alliance with the individuals against whom the Police are conducting investigations, especially the CID and FCID.
The UNP’s main electoral promise at the last poll was a thorough investigation into the robbing of public institutions, attacks, and murders of journalists, financial embezzlement, money laundering, abductions, and disappearances, etc. Without delivering on this singular promise, the UNP will be hard pressed to face the electorate at a future election while non-delivery on this will suit the President and the SLPP just fine. Given this scenario it is therefore just a matter of time before the prevailing truce between the President and the PM is shattered.
Disputed Opposition Leader Mahinda Rajapaksa has emphasised in recent media interviews that he and his party, the SLPP, will not waste a minute in unseating the Wickremesinghe administration at the first opportunity. Rajapaksa has proven time and again that he is more likely to keep his word than Wickremesinghe when it comes to grabbing power, so Wickremesinghe will have to be mindful of the fact.
The current conflagration in the SLFP owing to the President’s overtures to the SLPP will certainly offer some temporary respite to Wickremesinghe but he and his Government needs to get its act going, if it has one, by the beginning of the year and deliver the goods by the end of it. No doubt a tall order but not something impossible for a party that once completed the 30-year Mahaweli project in a matter of five years.
It is no secret that the SLFP is currently in turmoil with its party headquarters in lockdown on presidential orders. Die hard supporters including electoral organisers are up in arms against the Party Leader President Sirisena over the issuing of a letter purportedly confirming that all those who supposedly joined the SLPP, including Mahinda Rajapaksa and Namal Rajapaksa, were still members of the SLFP.
For their part, the Rajapaksas have denied obtaining SLPP membership and have described video evidence of such an exercise as only applying for membership. If the party’s current Chairman G.L. Peiris too takes the same stance in order to protect his parliamentary seat, the SLPP will be reduced to a ghost entity with only former cricketer T.M. Dilshan being its sole member.
All in all, 2018 was a lost opportunity for the UNP and SLFP to deliver good governance. Instead, the President, by his actions, destroyed the little hope that remained and, in the process, also destroyed the mandate he received to sit in presidential office. Given the political cross currents at play, 2019 will most probably be a repeat of 2018. Our advice to you: Tighten your belts and hold on to your seats. We wish you a happy, peaceful, and prosperous New Year!