Government switches on ‘Damage control’ | Daily News

Government switches on ‘Damage control’

The Avant Garde controversy appears to have brought out in to the open the divisions within the government, highlighting the fact that the unity in the ‘national’ government is in fact tenuous and fragile despite the high degree of co-operation between President Maithripala Sirisena and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe.

Last week saw this issue claim its first victim: former Law and Order Minister, Tilak Marapana. Marapana, a former Attorney General and generally highly respected for his legal acumen, had made a statement to Parliament defending some officials involved in the Avant Garde controversy; they had been his clients. This amounted to a conflict of interest and several of his Cabinet colleagues - some of them from the United National Party (UNP) itself - were demanding his resignation.

Vociferous in the criticism of Marapana were ministers Rajitha Senaratne and Champika Ranawaka. The former was freely giving vent to his opinions and these comments earned much publicity because of his role as Cabinet spokesman. Then, the government went in to ‘damage control’ mode.

Marapana's resignation

Marapana tendered his resignation following discussions with Prime Minister Wickremesinghe. The Premier would have been loath to see one of his top legal advisor depart from the Cabinet but he would have also been aware that not to insist on Marapana’s resignation would amount to an abandonment of the principles of good governance, coming especially on the heels of a similar controversy involving Central Bank Governor Arjuna Mahendran.

While Marapana’s detractors have been critical of his stance on the Avant Garde issue - which he re-iterated in a media briefing after his resignation and in subsequent press interviews - there was general agreement his resignation reflected positively on the government. Differences of opinion are nothing new in a vibrant democracy and Marapana’s resignation amounted to a recognition that his position was not in keeping with the concept of collective Cabinet responsibility.

If the government averted a public relations disaster by calling for Marapana’s resignation, that wasn’t the end of the dispute. By this time, Minister of Justice Wijeyadasa Rajapakshe had waded into the controversy saying among other things that he prevented the arrest of former Defence Secretary Gotabhaya Rajapaksa over the Avant Garde issue.

Rajapakshe was to later qualify his comments stating that he had no objections to Gotabhaya Rajapaksa’s arrest but he felt that this was uncalled for in this instance. However, the propriety of the Minister of Justice publicly claiming that he prevented the arrest of an individual- when such matters should essentially be the prerogative of the Police and the judiciary- is questionable, especially when this government came into office pledging to eradicate the culture of political interference in the judicial system which was practised by the previous regime.

Rajapakshe is also embroiled in a controversy with former Army Commander Sarath Fonseka, sending each other letters of demand over their comments on the Avant Garde debate. Fonseka is not a sitting member of Parliament but his privileges stripped during the previous government, were restored by President Sirisena and he was promoted Field Marshall. Rajapakshe was to make fun of this title, calling him a ‘vel vidane’. This dispute may not amount to much in the end, but it highlights the disparate factions and their divided opinions which are part and parcel of this government.

SLFP parliamentarians

If all this infighting was happening in the UNP corner of the government, all was not well within the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) as well. The factionalism that has dominated the party since the defeat of former President Mahinda Rajapaksa at the January 8 Presidential election continues to fester.

The latest development comes in the form of some SLFP parliamentarians aligning themselves with a self-styled ‘joint opposition’ which has now begun to hold media briefings and is publicly questioning the wisdom of the SLFP being part and parcel of the national government.

Besides, two relatively junior parliamentarians, Lohan Ratwatte (Kandy district) and Vidura Wickremenayake (Kalutara district) have challenged President Sirisena’s ability to lead the party to victory at future elections, hinting that public support still rests with Rajapaksa. The sons of two former strongmen in the party- late Minister Anurudhdha Ratwatte and former Prime Minister Ratnasiri Wickremenayake- their opinions might be the first shots in a volley of further fire.

Matters will come to a head when the party is confronted with the Local Government elections early next year. President Sirisena is already on record saying that he will lead the SLFP campaign at the poll. The President is confident of victory but also wants the party to go it alone, rather than aligning itself with the smaller parties of the United Peoples’ Freedom Alliance (UPFA), the signature coalition of his predecessor. However, sections of the UPFA are still lobbying for the Alliance to contest together with the SLFP, arguing that any divisions in the so-called ‘anti-government’ vote would only be advantageous to the UNP.

Adding fuel to the fire is Transport Minister and former Leader of the Opposition Nimal Siripala de Silva. His recent comments that good governance has ‘gone to pieces’ (yahapaalanaye keltih ne) earned him much publicity but also calls in to question the SLFP’s cohesiveness as a political entity.

While critical comments from the likes of Wickremenayake and Ratwatte, ranked lower in the party hierarchy, may not be of great significance, Silva’s statements cannot be dismissed lightly. He is a seasoned campaigner and is, most of all, a survivor in the snake pit of SLFP politics.

It is no secret that Silva was one of those sought after by those campaigning for Rajapaksa’s ouster but he stayed put in the Rajapaksa camp and was a leading light in the former President’s unsuccessful re-election effort. However, no sooner had Rajapaksa lost, Silva cast his lot with newly elected President Sirisena and was rewarded with the Leader of the Opposition post.

Presidential election

Silva did not hide his prime ministerial ambitions and was making noises to that effect but when there was a clamour from within the SLFP for Rajapaksa to be reinstated as Prime Minister should the UPFA win the August general election, Silva acquiesced, showing his capability to swim with the tide instead clinging on to political principles.

As a minister Silva has time and again irked the UNP, making comments directly antagonistic to the party, thereby jeopardising the working relationship between the two parties which is essential if this government is to achieve its commitments, most of which require a two-thirds majority in Parliament.

During the funeral of Ven, Maduluwawe Sobitha Thera the President pledged to abolish the Executive Presidency and on Tuesday, at a ceremony held to grant dual citizenship to Sri Lankans domiciled overseas he re-iterated this promise, adding that proposals to this effect, along with electoral reforms would be submitted to Cabinet. These are indeed the core promises of the government and its mandate could be attributed to the faith the electorate kept in delivering on these pledges. It is heartening to note that the President has not abandoned them one year after he defected from the Rajapaksa government and announced his candidature at the presidential election. However, both the President and the Prime Minister have many miles to travel and more promises to keep before they could rest assured that the concept of good governance is well and truly entrenched in Sri Lanka’s political culture. 

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