Editorial/Opinion

Caretaker govt. hit by “failure to launch” syndrome

Late night meetings, discreet conversations and promises obtained from various parties amounted to nothing as the Joint Opposition (JO) was unable to come to an agreement over whether or not they should attempt to form a caretaker government.

On Friday (12), MP Namal Rajapaksa told the media that the “JO” would topple the Government whenever the opportunity for such persists and that a caretaker government would only be put in place, if at all, in order to hold a general election. The statement by the young Rajapaksa indicated that the maneuvering that took place last week was not going to materialise in the form of a caretaker government that would replace the incumbent Coalition Government formed by the United National Front (UNF) and the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP).

Rumour mills went into overdrive this past week as news emerged of meetings between former President MP Mahinda Rajapaksa and President Maithripala Sirisena.
Despite efforts on the part of MP S.B. Dissanayake, who recently defected to the Opposition, a final decision could not be reached as to whether or not the President would attempt to unify the SLFP in hope of ousting Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe.
After news of Sirisena’s meeting with Rajapaksa and his siblings was made public last weekend, the President soon dismissed talks of the formation of a caretaker government as a fabrication of the media.
“There’s nothing like that. Don’t you know how the media reports stories,” Sirisena has told Leader of the House, Minister Lakshman Kiriella on Monday during a public event before taking off on a three-day official tour of the Seychelles.
However, this is not the first time that the President has made known his desire to see the Premier removed from his post; in March this year a no-confidence motion was moved by the JO against the Prime Minister.
On that occasion, despite the President’s best efforts, the motion failed to muster the required support due to the last minute decision of 23 SLFP MPs to abstain from voting resulting in a reversal in the decisions of several UNP MPs who had earlier decided to vote in favour of the motion. This resulted in the President losing the support of 16 members who crossed the aisle in Parliament to sit as independent members of opposition supporting the JO. Nevertheless, one of the 16, MP Dayasiri Jayasekera while sitting in the Opposition has now extended his support to President Sirisena.
Following on from the secret meetings between the former and current President, as reported in this column last week, members of the JO began to mobilise in hope that they could grab power from underneath the UNP.

Setting up a caretaker government

The SLFP MPs in the JO met on Tuesday (9) night to discuss the meeting between Sirisena and the Rajapaksas as well as the political future.
Accordingly, 41 SLFP MPs met under Rajapaksa’s patronage. The first question discussed at the meeting was whether the JO had received an invitation from Sirisena to form such a caretaker government. The answer was negative.
Several SLFP MPs were of the opinion that the President held most of the responsibility in forming a caretaker government and hence opted to wait for him to make the first move.
Rajapaksa however had stated that if a request was made to take over the Government, he would accept it without any hesitation.
MP Kumara Welgama then said that while he would not oppose the formation of a caretaker government, he would continue to sit in the Opposition. MP Mahindananda Aluthgamage had disagreed. He had said that any decision to form a caretaker government would be a collective decision and they must all act as one group.
After discussing for a while, Rajapaksa said that any final decision should be made after consulting with the other members of the JO representing different political parties.
The discussion was therefore expected to continue at the JO party leaders’ meeting on Thursday (11) held at Rajapaksa’s Wijerama Mawatha residence.

Split in JO

By the time of the meeting of the JO party leaders, it was evident that forming a caretaker government was not going to materialise any time soon.
At the meeting, it was finally decided to wait for Sirisena to make a proper overture with the required numbers to form a caretaker government and that such a unison would only be for the purpose of convening a general election. Until then, the JO leaders would explore every avenue to secure power and form a government.
Former Ministers Wimal Weerawansa, Vasudeva Nanayakkara, and MP Udaya Gammanpila are the most keen to see a quick change in power and therefore backed the possibility to form a caretaker government with great zeal.
Unfortunately for the JO, and the former President, the ranks were not unified in the whole idea of a caretaker government.
Former Minister Basil Rajapaksa expressed concerns that forming a caretaker government without the people’s mandate, in the face of a global economic crisis, would only serve to weaken their position.
Basil claimed that there should not be any halfway houses. Securing power through a fresh public mandate was the best, he opined.
“It is not that we are not ready to form a government. It is just that we need to be elected to power by a people’s vote,” he said.
His concerns were not shared by all. Weerawansa, addressing a public meeting last weekend said: “We also like to wait for the people’s mandate. But, there will not be a country when we get the mandate.” Going further, Weerawansa launched a thinly veiled attack on the former President’s younger brother, “the country will become lifeless if the current government continues for another one year. There is no point in coming to power in a lifeless country. Those who want to rule the roost in a lifeless country now talk about waiting for a mandate.”
Despite Weerawansa’s vehement demand that the JO attempt to take power, divisions within the group continued to grow.
JO parliamentarian Ranjith de Zoysa expressed his unwillingness to support a government with President Sirisena at the helm, stating that they could not trust him.
However, Basil is firm in his stance that a caretaker government should only be formed for the purpose of holding the next general election and not to actually govern.
According to the 19th Amendment to the Constitution, Parliament could be dissolved by the President only after it fulfils a period of four years. The incumbent House will complete its fourth year by August, 2019.

Damp squib

In essence, the move to form a caretaker government by the JO with the group of SLFP MPs in the Government and several legislators from the UNP to make the 113 required for the purpose, ended with the decision that such a move would be precipitated once the numbers are secured.
It was a déjà vu scenario for onlookers since the failure of the move was very similar to the events that took place in the run up to the No Faith Motion against Wickremesinghe earlier this year.
The United People’s Freedom Alliance (UPFA) General Secretary Minister Mahinda Amaraweera along with senior SLFP Minister Nimal Siripala de Silva clearly stated at a meeting of the UPFA Executive Committee held recently, that any decision to leave the Government or to join with any other force to form a new government would be made by the group of SLFP members in Government in unison.
“We will decide as a group and stand by it,” Amaraweera said, adding that there was no chance for a few in the group to join the JO to form any government while a few remained in the Coalition Government.
As soon as the sentiments of the Group of 23 SLFPers in government were known by the UNPers, once again the UNP MPs who were on the fence decided jump back to the side of the Coalition Government.
Finally, it was S.B. Dissanayake who was at the receiving end of all blame for the failure to launch the caretaker government that took most of the media space last week.
Despite SB’s denial in the media that a meeting of Sirisena and Rajapaksas had taken place at his residence the previous week, details of the discussion had already reached the public domain and there were no takers for his statement.
As MP Ranjith Soysa claimed last week, the whole caretaker government business was reduced to being a figment of SB’s imagination.
As for President Sirisena, he too decided to blame everything on SB.
A close confidante last week asked the President what the next course of action was for the Coalition Government.
The President simply responded saying: “Nothing. This is all SB’s madness. I didn’t do anything. I only discussed the alleged assassination plot targeting myself and the Rajapaksas. That’s all.”
Nevertheless, the JO it is learnt is continuing to look at opportunities to topple the Government as claimed by Namal and would continue to hunt for the numbers required to form a government.

UNP’s conundrum

Meanwhile, across the aisle, members of the UNP were also holding closed-door meetings with members of their own ranks and the President to try and make sense of all the rumours.
Last Sunday night, UNP strongman Minister Mangala Samaraweera met with the President at the latter’s official residence to discuss several matters related to the forthcoming 2019 Budget proposals. However, the discussion soon diverted into one focused on the next round of elections, starting next year, and the alliances that would contest.
Sirisena, it is learnt, had expressed his desire to contest a second term with the support of the UNP. Also, the President expressed his desire to see a new Prime Minister.
Samaraweera had responded saying that there was no possibility of making a change in the post of the Prime Minister as it would also result in a political crisis once again.
However, after Samaraweera’s meeting with the President, a few UNP big wigs met at his official residence on Stanmore Crescent. Among them were Ministers Malik Samarawickrama and Kabir Hashim.
The discussion was on the rumours and the President’s issue with the Prime Minister. It was unanimously agreed that there could not be any change to the post of Prime Minister. However, all of them have discussed the need to decide on the party’s candidate for the next presidential election.
They were all hesitant to accept Wickremesinghe as the UNP’s presidential candidate in 2020.
The TNA has already expressed in many subtle ways that they would not back the candidature of Wickremesinghe if he were to contest at the next presidential election. The Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) has already stated that the party would field its own candidate through a broad social front. Given the split in the vote bases in 2020, the UNP needs to field its best race horse.
Interestingly, a few of these details without the proper fact had been reported by a party who was not at Sunday night’s meeting to Wickremesinghe who at the time was on an official tour in London. Angry after hearing the details, Wickremesinghe it is learnt, had started to inquire about the meeting and had later heard exactly what had happened.
The UNP nevertheless, is now engaged in ensuring their numbers are in place in the event they are posed with the challenge of showing their majority in Parliament.

Rajapaksas checkmated

Amidst all this chaos, Opposition Leader TNA’s MP R. Sampanthan found a way of silencing, for a while, the continuous criticism against him flared by the JO by making Opposition MP Chamal Rajapaksa his nominee to the Constitutional Council. The move was also a portrayal of the political acumen of one of the most senior legislators in the country.
Sampanthan has continuously been criticised for his support towards the Government’s development and reconciliation agenda. The JO has even called on Speaker Jayasuriya on several occasions to replace Sampanthan with MP Dinesh Gunawardena who stands as the group leader of the JO in the House.
It seems Sampanthan found the best way to reconcile all these issues when the time came to form the Constitutional Council. He immediately said he would prefer to nominate Chamal Rajapaksa as his nominee. The statement took the rest of the TNA parliamentary group by surprise.
However, Sampanthan has explained his reasons to TNA MP M.A. Sumanthiran and the Prime Minister. The reasons were that the JO has often seen him as a figure that was amenable to the Government and has failed to heed to the needs of the Opposition members.
Sampanthan has said that if the JO was given space and a voice, they would feel more involved in the constitutional process. The reason for choosing Chamal according to Sampanthan was because he is a senior politician who has also held the post of Speaker of Parliament.
Sumanthiran and the Prime Minister have both understood Sampanthan’s reasons and it was so agreed that Chamal would be the choice of the Opposition Leader.
Sampanthan had then spoken with former President Rajapaksa and informed him of his idea and had asked if he was alright with such a nomination. Rajapaksa had immediately given the green light.
Be that as it may, soon after the appointments to the Constitutional Council were announced last week, several UNP MPs with a grin had asked several TNA MPs how the TNA had managed to checkmate the Rajapaksas.
It was then that the true picture dawned on many. Through the appointment of Chamal to the Constitutional Council, the Rajapaksas would be unable to turn a blind eye to the Constitutional Council and the JO too would have to think twice before making any critical comments, since they are represented in the council. Another bonus was the fact that Chamal’s appointment had left MP Dinesh Gunawardena feeling slighted since his seniority had been overlooked to make way for a Rajapaksa.