Five months after the January 8 presidential polls, Sri Lanka finds itself in an unprecedented political quagmire. Former president Mahinda Rajapaksa was defeated in the election, which Maithripala Sirisena of the Sri Lanka Freedom Party won. But the cabinet is dominated by the United National Party and its leader, Ranil Wickremesinghe, is the prime minister. Sirisena’s own party is in the opposition. He is, thus, in the unenviable position of being the head of state and government and also the main opposition party.
Sirisena won the election after quitting the SLFP and joining a UNP-headed coalition headed. As promised in his poll manifesto, he appointed Wickremesinghe as prime minister and asked him to form the government. But Sirisena got into knots after Rajapaksa unexpectedly vacated and offered his position as leader of the SLFP to Sirisena, who accepted it with alacrity.
But in the past five months, Sirisena has realised that the SLFP flock, instead of heeding him, is responding to the call of Rajapaksa, whose “retirement” proved to be a sham.
Rajapaksa is desperately trying to fight the parliamentary elections expected to be held before September on SLFP ticket, emerge as the leader of the single largest group in parliament and pitch for the prime ministerial post. Sirisena, however, is unlikely to give him the nomination.
What makes matters worse for Sirisena is the fact that the UNP has less than 45 MPs in a house of 225. The SLFP and the United Peoples’ Freedom Alliance, on the other hand, have the majority. Therefore, the UPFA's plans to move a no-confidence motion against the prime minister gave the Sirisena-Wickremesinghe camp the jitters.
The UPFA justified the move by saying that it wanted the “minority government” to be replaced by a “majority government”. The UNP had no right to form the government, said UPFA spokesman G.L. Peiris. In the event of the passing of the no-confidence motion, Peiris said, the prime minister and his cabinet are duty-bound to resign.
“As per parliamentary practice, the president should then call upon a person who, in his opinion, commands majority support in parliament, to form the government,” said Peiris. “The UPFA, with the SLFP, commands such support. Its leader in parliament should be asked to form the government. Dissolution can be considered only when this option is exhausted. It should be the last option.”
Addressing a public meeting on June 7, Wickremesinghe said those who were bringing the no-confidence motion against him were trying to grab power without a mandate. “The people gave me the mandate to become prime minister on January 9. These MPs would have been in the wilderness today if parliament was dissolved immediately after the presidential election,” he said.
Meanwhile, the UPFA and the SLFP want to pass the 20th constitutional amendment to introduce electoral reforms such as the first past the post (winner takes all) system to replace proportional representation. Sirisena supports the move because electoral reforms were an important part of his manifesto.
The UPFA and the SLFP, however, say that the amendment could be passed only if the government enjoys majority support in parliament. It has put Sirisena in a fix. Should he allow the no-trust vote to be passed and see the end of the Wickremesinghe government? If he does so, will not the government go into the hands of the acolytes of Rajapaksa, his bitterest rival?
The prospect of Rajapaksa making a comeback is looming large. Local newspapers are replete with pictures of Rajapaksa, his press releases and reports of his speeches. He visits Buddhist temples regularly, underlining his commitment to the cause of the Sinhalese-Buddhists, who form 72 per cent of Sri Lanka’s population. He visits comrades jailed on charges of corruption. Huge posters promoting him as the prime ministerial candidate have been put up. His public meetings have been drawing huge crowds.
What may aid Rajapaksa’s march to power is the fact that the much trumpeted 100-day programme of Sirisena and Wickremesinghe has run into problems. Prices have not come down. Halting mega construction projects to conduct inquiries into charges of corruption has hit employment. The rupee slump has seen prices of imported goods shoot up, and many items of daily use are imported in Sri Lanka. Political uncertainty has made civil servants cautious. This has affected development work and delivery of services. In his election manifesto, Sirisena had promised to dissolve parliament after the 100-day programme and order elections. But to date, the matter hangs in the balance.
Though Sirisena has said that he would dissolve parliament once the amendment is passed, its drafts have so far been fraught with controversy. Parties of the minority communities like the Indian-origin Tamils and the Muslims, and small parties, do not want the first past the post system to replace proportional representation. There is also difference of opinion on whether, and by how much, the number of seats in parliament should be increased.
On June 8, the cabinet approved a system where the number of seats would remain 225 seats; 125 of these will be filled by the first past the post system, 75 by proportional representation and the rest by nominations.
Whether the other parties would agree to this arrangement remains to be seen. There are, however, indications that parliament would be dissolved if no consensus is reached. Sirisena has told the US Secretary of State John Kerry and the UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon that there would be a new government in Sri Lanka before September.