One too many trump cards
The political games witnessed in the paradise isle last week have gone on to show that President Maithripala Sirisena is now a man of little or no choice at all. With all political factions now drawing clear battle lines, for all his bravado of having many trump cards, Mr. President is now trying to distance himself from the current political crisis that is threatening to throw the country into an abyss.
The fact that Sirisena was looking at an exit strategy from the chaos was first witnessed after the outcome of the first vote on the No-confidence Motion against his Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa was taken up last Wednesday (14). Ironically, 14th was the date Sirisena chose to reconvene Parliament, after proroguing the House.
As soon as Speaker Karu Jayasuriya sent out the proceedings, along with his recommendation to appoint a new prime minister, given that Rajapaksa has lost the No-faith Motion brought against him by a majority vote, Sirisena, in a stern note, iterated that the Speaker’s verdict was unacceptable.
Nevertheless, the outcome of the proceedings in Parliament on the 14th, as well as the growing public displeasure at the state of governance, did not help calm Sirisena’s nerves.
Following the Supreme Court decision on Tuesday (13) to issue an enjoining order suspending the gazette issued on Friday (9) by the President dissolving Parliament, the President discussed with the United People’s Freedom Alliance (UPFA) parliamentary group whether the group was in a state to face a vote on the No-confidence Motion against Rajapaksa.
Realising that the group was still short of numbers, the UPFA parliamentary group decided to face the situation as it unfolded, claiming that the only way out was to prevent the motion from being taken up for a vote until 7 December, when the Supreme Court is due to announce the final verdict on the 13 petitions filed against the premature dissolution of the legislature.
The chief strategist of the Rajapaksas’ Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP), Basil Rajapaksa, who was not a fan of the latest arrangement between Sirisena and brother Mahinda Rajapaksa to form a government, continued to reiterate the need to push for a snap general election to resolve the current political stalemate.
Basil, it is learnt, has been advocating that a solution should be reached fast to dissolve Parliament and head for a general election.
The Sunday Morning learnt that Basil had even tried to test the waters in the United National Front (UNF) on the matter of early general elections. The UNF had let him know that the group was not prepared to go for any election with a government headed by Rajapaksa, performing the role of a caretaker government.
The next option for the SLPP was to buy time until 7 December when the Supreme Court verdict is delivered on the dissolution of Parliament.
It is therefore evident that parliamentary proceedings will remain chaotic until early December.
Be that as it may, Sirisena has stated to both the UNF as well as the UPFA that he was prepared to work with any government that commands the majority in the House. Nevertheless, for the UNF, the President has laid down one condition – under no circumstances will Wickremesinghe be made Prime Minister again.
Sirisena, in no uncertain terms, has expressed his displeasure at even discussing issues that have led to the falling out with Wickremesinghe.
During a meeting with leaders of the UNF on Thursday (15) evening, the President explained the reasons for his decision to appoint Rajapaksa as Prime Minister on 26 October.
The UNF leaders met the President soon after concluding a massive protest rally at the Lipton Circus at Town Hall. The large crowds that gathered for the rally gave quite a shock to Sirisena as well as the Rajapaksa camp. Citizens who otherwise lead quiet lives were seen on the streets, claiming that they decided to play their role in ensuring the protection of democratic practices.
However, a meeting was called at the Presidential Secretariat and was attended by Speaker Jayasuriya, leaders of the UNF, including Rajitha Senaratne, Champika Ranawaka, Mano Ganesan, Rauf Hakeem, Rishard Bathiudeen, Ravi Karunanayake, Kabir Hashim, and several other UNP MPs as well as MP R. Sampanthan from the TNA.
At the outset of the meeting, the President said that he had no option but to appoint Rajapaksa, since he could no longer work with Wickremesinghe as Prime Minister.
“This decision was not taken overnight. It was an action that was in the making for over three years,” Sirisena has said.
He further noted that he too wanted to stand by the UPFA-UNF Coalition Government that was elected to power in 2015 and as a result tried to get either Jayasuriya or MP Sajith Premadasa to take over the role of prime minister – which they have both turned down.
Once again, Sirisena has draw attention to the alleged plot to assassinate him, saying Wickremesinghe ignored the matter without even pushing for a proper investigation. The President added that UNF MP Sarath Fonseka was implicated in the plot, but Wickremesinghe ignored it, and despite requests being made to remove Fonseka from a Cabinet portfolio, continued to keep the former military chief in the Cabinet of Ministers.
The UNF leaders asked the President to have a one-on-one with Wickremesinghe. Sirisena had sternly refused, saying he had no intention of meeting Wickremesinghe.
Sirisena had then broached the issue of commanding a majority in Parliament.
The President at this juncture has admitted that the UPFA did not have the required numbers to defeat the No-faith Motion.
He asked the UNF leaders to present the motion with amendments to the House the following day, Friday (16), and get it passed. The President promised to abide by the Speaker’s decision.
Nevertheless, the President had one request – to amend the No-faith Motion that was presented to Parliament on the 14 November.
Sirisena wanted the first clause of the motion amended. The first clause stated that Rajapaksa’s appointment was carried out in violation of the Constitution.
According to Sirisena, the first clause was detrimental to him, since it could result in him facing a legal onslaught or even an impeachment.
“Amend the motion, remove the first clause, and get it passed in Parliament,” he said, adding the he would speak to the UPFA group about taking part in the vote.
When the UNF leader s had expressed concerns over the conduct of the UPFA MPs in the House and the possibility of them disrupting proceedings, the President said that he could not ensure that each and every UPFA MP would adhere to his request. He added that he would even accept the result of a voice vote in the event a vote cannot be taken by name.
Interestingly, the assurance given to the UNF leaders of accepting a voice vote was later denied by the President in the official statement issued, stating that he could not accept the Speaker’s verdict on the vote on Friday since it was not in line with the standing orders of Parliament.
The UNF leaders expected the President to communicate the decisions taken at the meeting to the group of UPFA MPs headed by Dinesh Gunawradena that was waiting outside to commence a meeting with Sirisena.
However, JVP Leader MP Anura Kumara Dissanayake was a notable absentee at the meeting of the party leaders that supported the No-faith Motion.
The Sunday Morning learnt that Dissanayake had walked out of the meeting hall a few minutes after arriving at the venue. The reason for the sudden departure was Dissanayake’s displeasure at the large number of UNF members at the meeting.
The message about the meeting was conveyed to the participants by the Speaker. Therefore, Dissanayake had spoken to Jayasuriya and said he was not pleased that a meeting of party leaders, that was to take place with the President, was attended by a large number of MPs from one party – the United National Party (UNP).
The Speaker, after accepting Dissanayake’s displeasure, had pleaded with him to stay for the meeting, saying that the UNF, JVP, and TNA had to speak to the President in one voice to be heard.
Dissanayake has then, once again, explained the reasons for the JVP’s decision to back the No-faith Motion, stating that the JVP was in no way going to play any role in carrying out Wickremesinghe’s bidding to return to the prime minister’s seat.
“We have nothing personal against Mahinda Rajapaksa or Ranil Wickremesinghe. We don’t want to help either one of them secure their positions. We are opposed to the threat to democracy, and that’s why we are backing the No-faith Motion. It is in no way aimed at helping Wickremesinghe become Prime Minister again,” Dissanayake said.
The President had entered the meeting hall soon after Dissanayake had walked out of the room.
Despite discussions and consensus reached the night before, the UPFA group loyal to Rajapaksa was not prepared to let Sirisena hand Rajapaksa’s premiership on a platter to the UNF.
The group put pressure on the President, saying that he had no right to wash his hands of the chaos, since it was his making.
After hearing what the President had discussed at the meeting with the UNF and TNA leaders about the No-faith Motion to be taken on Friday, the Rajapaksa faction in the UPFA group had asked the President to find a way of blocking the vote in a strategic manner.
The option then was to issue a statement saying the President would accept the result of a vote taken by name in line with the standing orders.
The minute the statement was made public in the media, the UNF, TNA, and JVP knew that the President had turned truant yet again and was making wriggle space for the UPFA and Rajapaksa to buy more time.
Come Friday, the UPFA group in Parliament launched a protest in the well, with UPFA MP Arundhika Fernando forcibly occupying the Speaker’s chair before the sessions commenced.
UPFA MPs first tried to block the Speaker from entering the chambers in Parliament.
The Speaker however was prepared for such antics by the UPFA.
Meanwhile, the UNF, JVP, and TNA MPs were given strict instructions not to engage with the unruly mob of UPFA MPs and to remain seated regardless of the provocation.
The Speaker had then organised 30 police officers to accompany him into the chambers where he would conduct the sessions via a FM microphone.
According to reports, when his security and private staff advised him against entering, the Speaker responded: “I will enter the chamber for the future generations of Sri Lanka.”
It was nothing short of an action movie at the Diyawanna abode on 16 November, 2018. A historic day indeed, since it was the first time in Sri Lanka’s history that a Speaker of Parliament was escorted into the chamber surrounded by police officers.
UPFA MPs Johnston Fernando, Sanath Nishantha, Prasanna Ranaweera, Wimal Weerawansa, and Mahidananda Aluthagamage were among those who seized objects including chairs, copies of the country’s Constitution, the Holy Bible, and water mixed with chilli powder, which they proceeded to hurl at police officers, the Speaker, and MPs representing the UNF, TNA, and JVP.
Surrounded by a shield of bodies, the Speaker began proceedings.
After suspending standing orders, following a motion moved by TNA MP M.A. Sumanthiran, Jayasuriya announced that the first clause of the No-faith Motion presented to the House would be removed and presented for a fresh vote.
After the motion was seconded, the Speaker announced that a voice vote would be taken and said that although he wanted to hold a vote by name, the chaos in the Chamber had made it difficult to do so.
The UNF, TNA, and JVP MPs who were in their seats stood and voted “aye” to pass the No-faith Motion. Apart from the group of UPFA MPs, the rest of the House voted “aye”.
The Speaker then announced that the “ayes shall have it,” thereby confirming that the No-faith Motion had been passed for the second time.
The UNF, TNA, and JVP MPs, despite coming under heavy attack by the UPFA MPs, walked away from the chamber. Several injured UNF and JVP MPs including Malik Samarawickrema, Gamini Jayawickrema Perera, and Vijitha Herath, along with several police officers, were treated at the Parliament Medical Centre for injuries sustained.
The Speaker’s verdict was communicated to the President.
The UNF leaders were scheduled to meet with the President at 7 p.m. on Friday to discuss the appointment of a new prime minister and cabinet.
Sirisena gave a miss to the meeting and informed the UNF that he was unable to meet them. He did not even meet with TNA’s Sampanthan when a request was made for an appointment.
However, the President on Friday night announced that he did not accept the Speaker’s verdict since the voting had not been carried out according to the standing orders and voice votes could not be accepted.
Interestingly, on 21 June, 2011, when Chamal Rajapaksa performed the role of Speaker of the House, he called for a voice vote when, ironically, current Speaker Jayasuriya had presented the Right to Information Bill to Parliament as a private member’s motion.
Jayasuriya was then an Opposition MP and the motion was seconded by then Opposition Leader Wickremesinghe.
Rajapaksa, after claiming that the governing party was opposed to it, had said a voice vote would be called and declared that the “noes shall have it.”
Hence, the Rajapaksa loyalists are well aware of voice votes being taken in Parliament on previous occasions.
While the President was giving a cold shoulder to the UNF, he held a meeting with the UPFA parliamentary group on Friday night.
The meeting was not at all a pleasant scene.
The UPFA group said that despite their disruptive antics in the House, it was now publicly evident that they did not possess the majority in Parliament.
UPFA MP Kumara Welgama has on several occasions openly stated that the UPFA should sit in the Opposition without resorting to disruptive tactics if they did not possess the required majority in the House.
He has even said that a seasoned politician like Mahinda Rajapaksa, he believed, would never condone such disruptive actions.
When the issue of numbers was taken up, Sirisena finally broke his silence and said that he had been continuously hearing statements being made that he had failed to deliver the numbers to set the majority for the UPFA.
“There’s no truth to this statement. I never promised to give any numbers. In fact, I was informed by the architects of this Government that the numbers were in place, and for me to go ahead,” Sirisena has said.
No UPFA MP, even the Rajapaksa loyalists, had objected to the President’s statement.
The President said that he was informed by UPFA MPs S.B. Dissanayake, Thilanga Sumathipala, Dilan Perera, and Lakshman Wasantha Perera that all was in place and there was no issue in showing the majority in Parliament.
“I have done my part in this matter. I have even gone to the extent of issuing five gazette notifications to resolve this issue. If the required numbers are not there, it is not my problem,” Sirisena has said.
The UPFA group asked the President if he had plans to reappoint Wickremesinghe as Prime Minister, to which Sirisena has given a firm “no”.
Sirisena then expressed concerns over the growing instability in the country, saying the matter needed to be resolved soon.
The President finally said that either group had to now show in Parliament that they have the majority to run the government.
The Rajapaksa loyalists in the UPFA group had told Premier Rajapaksa to stand his ground and not to give up.
Sri Lanka meanwhile is under heavy scrutiny by the international community that is keeping a close watch on the goings on in the country.
Many foreign nations have expressed concerns over the current situation in Sri Lanka and have even urged the Government and President to respect democratic practices to ensure the smooth functioning of the country.
Several heads of foreign missions in Sri Lanka have commented on the current political crisis in the social media as well. Representatives have also attended the Supreme Court sessions on the petitions against the parliament dissolution and the two parliamentary sittings on the 14th and 16th.
Meanwhile, a foreign news agency reported last week that the ambassadors of Britain, Netherlands, Norway, France, Australia, South Africa, Italy, and Canada did not attend a meeting organised by Foreign Minister Sarath Amunugama to discuss the current situation in the country, while the European Union, the United States, and Germany sent representatives.
Former Ambassador of the US to the United Nations, Samantha Power, referring to the melee in Parliament last Friday, tweeted saying: “Quite a photo from @AP. After Sri Lankan lawmakers voted for the 2nd time to reject bid to make authoritarian ex-pres Rajapaksa the new PM, Rajapaksa allies began attacking other MPs & the police officers protecting them. Classless & dangerous.”
The statements made by the diplomats have been criticised by a certain section of chest-beating patriots as foreign interference in Sri Lanka’s internal affairs. However, it is interesting to see these patriots turn a blind eye when monies have to be borrowed from the international community to meet Sri Lanka’s foreign debt obligations.
The foreign diplomatic missions in Colombo have expressed their intentions following the goings on in Sri Lanka very closely and have already hinted of the implications due to the failure to adhere to basic democratic tenets.
Gearing for polls
Amidst all this chaos, the UNF, UPFA, and SLPP are looking at how best to contest at the next elections.
SLPP strategist Basil, it is learnt, is now worried that further prolonging the current political crisis would have a detrimental impact on the SLPP voter base.
The SLPP, that was gaining momentum in the run up to the February 10, 2018 local government elections and thereafter, has been dealt quite a blow by the latest political events. This fact is not lost on Basil.
The SLPP worry is that the decisive voter base, consisting of the middle-class and a lot of first-time voters, might turn towards the growing campaign for democracy, headed by the forces behind the 8 January, 2015 change.
The Sri Lanka Nidahas Podujana Peramuna, which is an alliance being formed between the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) and SLPP, is progressing, with discussions being focused on the possible symbol.
However, SLFP Leader President Sirisena is feeling weary since the move has angered a large number of diehard SLFPers.
SLFP General Secretary Rohana Lakshman Piyadasa has in fact told the media that the initial expectation was for the SLPP members to join the SLFP, but it has now turned out to be the opposite.
Hence, the Sri Lanka Nidahas Podujana Peramuna seems to be in limbo.
Meanwhile, the common political alliance being formed together with the allies of the UNF is looking at forming an alliance under the theme of safeguarding democracy and people’s rights.
The Sunday Morning learnt that the leaders are now trying to decide between the symbols of a “flower vase” or a “flower sheaf”.
Interestingly, the recent political chaos seems to have benefited the makers of the common alliance with almost all the forces that formed the 8 January, 2018 movement joining in to strengthen the push to ensure that democracy prevails in the country yet again.