Editorial/Opinion

MS-MR honeymoon nearing an end?

Cracks have started to surface in the political marriage between President Maithripala Sirisena and Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa even before celebrating its one week anniversary. For Sirisena and Rajapaksa, it has been a difficult honeymoon period with both trying to get their house in order.

With the initial euphoria of the formation of a joint Government between the United People’s Freedom Alliance (UPFA) led by Sirisena and the Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP) led by Rajapaksa starting to wear off, members of the two political fronts are beginning to realise that all will not be well once election time comes forth in early 2019.

The holding of provincial council elections as well as an early general election next year were prerequisites of the mastermind behind the latest political alliance, Rajapaksa sibling, Basil Rajapaksa.
In fact, it is learnt that another Rajapaksa sibling, former Defence Secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa, during his meeting with Wickremesinghe at Temple Trees on Thursday (1 November), had discussed the possibility of going for snap general elections early next year with the consensus of both parties.
Gotabaya, it is learnt, said that the current political impasse could be resolved by a fresh people’s mandate. The need to reach a consensus by both parties on the holding of snap general elections is the need for a two-thirds majority in the House to pass the motion for the premature dissolution of the House and move for elections.

The other option is for the President to dissolve Parliament after it completes four-and-a-half years. The current Parliament would complete its four-and-a-half years only in early 2020.

In the event all parties in the House agree to move for snap general elections, it would help to have a consensus between the Rajapaksas and Wickremesinghe.

However, the SLPP is now trying to make best out of its alliance with Sirisena.

The first signs of displeasure between the two parties were felt as early as last weekend, a few days after Mahinda Rajapaksa was sworn in as Prime Minister by Sirisena before a stunned nation.

Last weekend, Basil met the President to ask him to show the numbers that were promised by the latter in order to show a majority in Parliament. It is then that word got out that the President had promised 16 legislators in addition to the 95 UPFA MPs in Parliament. Sirisena has remained calm and said there was no need to worry as he has the majority support in the House.

It is no secret that the President on several occasions had claimed to many UPFA MPs that he had the support of several United National Front (UNF) MPs. “You will never be able to believe the number of UNF members who are ready to support me. Some of them are very senior,” Sirisena has told several members of the UPFA parliamentary group that met at the Presidential Secretariat last Saturday (27 October) night.

However, Basil was weary of the claims made by the President and continued to insist on completing the required numbers.

The President, in order to take time to get his numbers sorted, prorogued Parliament till 16 November. This was a clear indication to the UNF that the UPFA did not possess the required numbers to cement its move to form a government.

Basil takes charge

Realising that any further dillydallying on building the numbers would result in irreversible damages to the SLPP camp, Basil decided to take charge of mustering the support of MPs.

While the search was ongoing to garner support from the UNF ranks, pressure was also mounting from the UPFA – from the group of Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) MPs who remained in the Coalition Government with the UNF. The group of MPs was of the view that the President had rushed into forming a government with Rajapaksa and his loyalists in Parliament, without considering its implications.

One by one, Basil and several other Rajapaksa family members, along with their supporters, started approaching UNF MPs and the group of SLFP MPs, who abstained from voting on the No Faith Motion moved against Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe earlier this year, on grounds that Wickremesinghe alone could not be held responsible for the failures of the Unity Government.

The first to get on board the new Government was UNF’s Ananda Aluthgamage and Wasantha Senanayake, followed by Vadivel Suresh.

Meanwhile, negotiations were underway within the UNF to ensure that their members held firm under the intense pressure being exerted by the President who was offering wide ranging ministerial portfolios.
Interestingly, yesterday, UNF’s Palitha Range Bandara released the voice recordings of telephone calls received by him, promising cash and a portfolio for his defection to the UPFA-led Government.
The recordings have implicated S.B. Dissanayake and a few of his loyalists.

The releasing of the audio recordings left the SLPPers speechless and MP Namal Rajapaksa, stating on Twitter, that the SLPP is unaware of such a move and that the incident warrants a proper investigation.
During the entirety of last week, the main focus was on each side battling it out to secure the numbers.
Following the rally held on Tuesday (30 October), three senior UNF MPs Rajitha Senaratne, Champika Ranawaka, and Kabir Hashim rushed to an undisclosed location where they met with SLFP Minister Duminda Dissanayake. Having discussed the possibility of mustering his support for the No Faith Motion against Rajapaksa, the UNF MPs left.

However, having got wind of the news, senior UPFA members, including the SLFP General Secretary Rohana Lakshman Piyadasa were dispatched to the Minister’s house to prevent him from meeting with the UNF members, while securing his support for the President. With news having reached the UNF camp that their attempts had been derailed, they soon turned their attention to several other SLFP Ministers in the hope that they too could be convinced.

On Wednesday (31 October), Basil arrived at Dissanayake’s residence for a discussion that lasted nearly three hours. It was the first time the duo had held a discussion since the formation of the 8 January, 2015 Government.

A group of SLFP electoral organisers had also visited Dissanayake to receive information about what was going on.

By Thursday, negotiations had reached a climax, with the UNF confident they had secured the support of several key SLFP members. However, hopes were soon dashed when the news arrived that the respective SLFP seniors were being escorted to the Presidential Secretariat by Rajapaksa loyalists and members of the Presidential Security Division (PSD), for what would be a damaging blow to the UNF chances of retaining power.

Attention quickly returned to their own camp, where the President was found to be personally calling members offering key portfolios and support for their relevant districts.

At the time of writing, the UNF members were standing firm with their party leaders. However, as pressure began to mount with the news that there would be no crossovers from the SLFP side the UNF decided to intensify its moves to secure its numbers.

As the days passed by, the pressure on UNF MPs, especially the Sri Lanka Muslim Congress (SLMC) and All Ceylon Muslim Congress (ACMC) increased. Moves were also being made on individual members of the TNA.

No clue

Be that as it may, apart from making moves to woo MPs to the UPFA-led Government, neither the President nor Rajapaksa seem to be keen on thinking of the political future of their supporters, giving the impression that the current alliance is one that will be temporary.

The SLFP MPs who remained in the Unity Government till 26 October, realised that the breakup between Sirisena and Wickremesinghe was in the making for several months. Given the continuous bickering between the President and the Wickremesinghe-led UNF at Cabinet meetings, they realised that the Unity Government was heading for a breakup, but never realised that it would be as soon as 26 October.

When members of the Rajapaksa family and their loyalists approached Minister Duminda Dissanayake for his support in forming the new Government, he informed them that he preferred to stay silent without hindering the work being carried out.

He went on to explain that as National Organiser of the SLFP, he was concerned about the plight of the SLFPers, its electoral organisers, as well as the supporters who worked towards the 8 January, 2015 change.

He noted that the deal between Sirisena and Rajapaksa had been reached without any form of discussion or proper agreements. Dissanayake posed several questions to the Rajapaksa camp as well as Sirisena loyalists who approached him.

He asked what the plan between the SLFP, UPFA, and the SLPP was come election time – will there be an amalgamation or will they contest separately? Next, he asked, in the event of an amalgamation, what would come of the thousands of SLFP electoral organisers, as well as councillors who were elected early this year to the local government bodies.

The silence maintained by both the Rajapaksa camp and Sirisena camp made it evident that the political marriage between the two political forces was a rushed affair without reaching proper consensus on many key issues.

The meeting convened by the President with the SLFP organisers at the President’s House in Fort on Wednesday, did not resolve the key issues. In fact, around 11 organisers were absent at the meeting, which set off warning lights to Sirisena that all would not be well until he addressed the issues.
The President then summoned the Central Committee (CC) of the SLFP on Thursday and decided that he needed to ensure that the meeting commences with a show of strength and solidarity within the party.
Sirisena and Rajapaksa both agreed that the likes of Dissanayake and several others who remained in the Unity Government with the UNF should be sworn into the Cabinet to ensure a united front.

It was Shashindra Rajapaksa and the rest of the former “Joint Opposition” MPs who had to force Dissanayake to accept the portfolio along with several others prior to the CC meeting.

Earlier that day, Dissanayake announced his displeasure at MPs Thilanga Sumathipala and Dilan Perera who had made critical comments about him at a meeting convened by several UPFA MPs to discuss the solidarity rally scheduled to be held on Monday (5 November).

It was Minister Mahinda Amaraweera who had lashed out at Sumathipala and Perera when they had criticised Dissanayake in his absence.

Be that as it may, The Sunday Morning reliably learns that one of the key reasons for Sirisena to push for the alliance between the UPFA and SLPP was the hope of contesting the next presidential election.
Contrary to public claims by Sirisena that he had no intention of contesting at the next presidential election, The Sunday Morning learns that he has every intention of contesting at the election, and the possibility of receiving the support of the SLPP for his candidature then was his motivation to form the latest alliance.

In fact, the issue of supporting his presidential candidature at the next election had figured during the much-talked-of meeting between the Rajapaksas and Sirisena at MP S.B. Dissanayake’s residence last month.

Although Sirisena was initially interested in being part of the common political alliance in the making under the leadership of MP Rajitha Senaratne, the realisation that Wickremesinghe would lead the UNP in the alliance and would possibility seek a nomination as the next common candidate deterred him from further pursuing the matter.

Instead, Sirisena opted to discuss with Senaratne and expressed interest in the option, while secretly exploring the possibility of cementing a deal with the Rajapaksa-led SLPP to support him.
Interestingly, the SLPP, it is learnt, had not given any form of assurance of supporting Sirisena’s candidature.

All that remains to be seen is Sirisena delivering on his promise of providing numbers to complete the 113 majority required in Parliament.

Pressure is now mounting on the Sirisena-Rajapaksa Government to immediately call for the reconvening of Parliament to overcome the current political impasse where Wickremesinghe and Rajapaksa both claim they are the legitimate Prime Ministers of the country.

Pressure to hold Parliament

The next sign of discord between Sirisena and Rajapaksa has been over the reconvening of Parliament.
Rajapaksa last week said that Parliament would be convened on Monday (5 November) only to be contradicted by the President, stating that he had not made such a decision.

The matter was further compounded on Friday (2 November) when a group of UNF, Tamil National Alliance (TNA), and Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) MPs met Speaker Karu Jayasuriya and handed him a motion signed by 118 parliamentarians, calling for Parliament to be reconvened immediately.
Jayasuriya then said that the President had informed him that he would call for the reconvening of Parliament on Wednesday (7 November). Nevertheless, even at the time of going to print, the President had not issued the gazette calling for the reconvening of Parliament.

However, signed by MP Lakshman Kiriella, the UNF handed over to Parliament a Motion of No Confidence against Rajapaksa, which would have to be taken up when Parliament meets next.
As the President announced the proroguing of Parliament, the senior leadership recognised the fact that citizen support was required if they were to weather this storm. UNP General-Secretary Akila Viraj-Kariyawasam and party Chairman Kabir Hashim, were tasked with organising a mass demonstration at the Liberty Roundabout on Tuesday, demanding that the President reconvene Parliament. With only 24 hours to organise the rally, Hashim was tasked with the job of organising the crowds that would ensure a clear message was sent.

On Tuesday morning, news arrived that the President was considering dispatching the Army to remove the demonstrators from Temple Trees, out of fear that the crowds may become unruly. However, Rajapaksa cautioned against this move, suggesting that it would incite further violence. Instead, the IGP was instructed to reduce the security of Wickremesinghe and the rest of the UNF Ministers to that of an MP.

Despite the reduced security, UNF Ministers and MPs ventured out into the crowds of thousands who had gathered outside Temple Trees to demand that Parliament be reconvened immediately.
The JVP held a protest rally on Friday (2 November) against the undemocratic actions of Sirisena and called for the reconvening of Parliament as well.

Interestingly, there have been several organic protests organised by citizens held at the Liberty Roundabout.

UNF fights back

The UNF meanwhile had been able to regroup with the decision that Wickremesinghe and his coalition would occupy Temple Trees, refusing to give up the Prime Minister’s symbolic residence.
The UNF MPs were instructed to continue to bring in supporters to Temple Trees where they were setup in the main ballroom which had originally been constructed by Rajapaksa to entertain over 5,000 guests. Food and water was quickly organised to feed these supporters, as MPs took the time to meet the people and reassure that this would be a quickly fought battle.

Despite the issue dragging on for over a week now, UNF supporters continue to flock to Temple Trees in a show of strength.

If there is a positive in the whole unfolding drama, it is that it has brought the UNF leaders closer to their membership once again.

On the other hand, pressure is now beginning to mount on the United National Party (UNP) seniors to take stock and move towards a change in the party leadership in order to ensure the party’s victory at the next election.

As always, the popular contender for the post of party leadership is MP Sajith Premadasa. Wickremesinghe is sure to resist the move, but this time around, a majority of the party seniors seem adamant to ensure that the party is invigorated and geared to face elections.