Forging ahead amidst confusion | Daily News

Forging ahead amidst confusion

In the end, the motion of no-confidence against Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe turned out to be anti-climax of sorts. Wickremesinghe was endorsed by Parliament by a comfortable majority of 46 votes, with 122 parliamentarians opposing the motion and 76 MPs voting for it.

The debate in parliament last Wednesday which lasted an entire day, did capture the imagination of the masses. Broadcast live on television, it provided an opportunity for both the government and the opposition to make their arguments before the public- and the Joint Opposition (JO) which mooted the motion would not have bargained for the criticism that came their way not only from the United National Party (UNP) but also from the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP).

In the lead up to the debate, the vote was expected to be a close call. Speculation was rife in the corridors of power that several UNPers would vote for the motion. In fact, parliamentarians Range Bandara and Wasantha Senanayake had hinted as much in public.

It was obvious that the mainstream Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) loyal to President Maithripala Sirisena was very keen to see the motion through. Several of its top stalwarts were extremely keen to oust Premier Wickremesinghe.

SLFP parliamentary group

Among them, declaring their intention to vote for the motion were Ministers Susil Premajayantha, S.B. Dissanayake and Dilan Perera. Another who was in the forefront of rallying the mainstream SLFP to vote for the motion was Deputy Speaker Thilanga Sumathipala.

Their public pronouncements suggested that they definitely had the support of the entire mainstream SLFP parliamentary group as well as a few dissident UNPers. Premajayantha went so far as to say that he would resign from the Cabinet, if the motion did not succeed.

In the end, the motion failed miserably. The MPs voted on party lines, except for the mainstream SLFP which was badly split. The Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna voted for the motion while the Tamil National Alliance supported Prime Minister Wickremesinghe.

In the United Peoples’ Freedom Alliance (UPFA), the JO faction voted en masse for the motion. It was in the mainstream SLFP that the cracks were apparent. Sixteen, including six ministers voted supporting the motion. Twenty-five however abstained or absented themselves at the time of the vote. The six Cabinet ministers who voted for the motion were Susil Premajayantha, Dayasiri Jayasekara, John Seneviratne, Anura Yapa, S. B. Dissanayake and Chandima Weerakkody.

The UNP supported Prime Minister Wickremesinghe unanimously. The only abstention from the government ranks came from Athuraliye Rathana thera who is from the Jathika Hela Urumaya (JHU).

Despite the vote itself being an anti-climax, the political fallout from it has been significant, both for the government and the opposition as well as for particular political parties, especially the SLFP and the UNP.

From a government perspective, the vote raises the serious question as to whether six Cabinet ministers who voted for a no-confidence motion against the Prime Minister could remain in office. If the vote had succeeded, Prime Minister Wickremesinghe would have had to resign. By the same token, it is now incumbent upon those ministers who voted for the motion to resign forthwith.

Mockery of democratic process

There is confusion about the stance of the SLFP as a party and President Sirisena’s opinion on this issue. It has been reported that some ministers such as Susil Premajayantha and Anura Priyadarshana Yapa have indicated their willingness to resign but that President Sirisena has asked them to stay on.

Others have opined that they are not members of Prime Minister Wickremesinghe’s Cabinet but members of President Sirisena’s Cabinet, so they see no reason to resign. Of course, the latter argument would make a mockery of the entire democratic process of the no-confidence motion!

The vote exposed just how divided the mainstream SLFP was. Hours after the vote, the party held two media briefings. One was conducted by those who voted for the motion. The other was held by those who abstained. In the latter, there were explanations at length to suggest that President Sirisena had been neutral, not adopting a stance either for or against the motion.

A subsequent meeting of the SLFP’s Central Committee, its highest decision-making body, turned out to be a slanging match between the two groups- those who voted for the motion and those who voted against. The party’s official stance is yet to be determined and President Sirisena will have to intervene promptly and decisively if further divisions in the mainstream SLFP are to be avoided.

In the aftermath of the vote last Wednesday, a group of UNP parliamentarians submitted motions of no-confidence against the ministers who voted for the motion against Prime Minister Wickremesinghe. However, Prime Minister Wickremesinghe has requested that this be withdrawn.

For the JO, the outcome was a rude shock as they were brought down to earth with the reality that, despite their recent win at the local government elections, they didn’t command sufficient numbers in Parliament.

There were concerns that the JO may have wasted the political momentum it had generated with its local government election victory. The JO would also not have been proud of the various allegations of corruption against its own members which got a very public airing to a countrywide audience when the debate was telecast live.

In fact, former President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s first instructions when the vote was mooted was that it should proceed only if could be won. Rajapaksa is aware that in politics, momentum is everything and a loss in the vote could be crippling to the JO. He gave the greenlight for the motion to proceed believing it would succeed but it now appears he was misinformed about the number of UNPers willing to support the motion.

Perhaps the only positive fallout from the vote could accrue to the UNP, if they pursue the correct strategy from now onwards. Even before the vote last Wednesday, Prime Minister Wickremesinghe had indicated that he was open to the suggestion of reforming the party, taking into consideration its poor performance at the recent local elections as well as the dissenting sentiments expressed by some MPs.

Political career

There is no doubt that Prime Minister Wickremesinghe will engage in some serious reflection in the aftermath of the vote of no-confidence. After a distinguished political career spanning four decades, Premier Wickremesinghe will want to leave the national political stage with a legacy of leading the country decisively instead of being Premier to three Presidents.

To do so, he must win the next presidential elections, due in January 2020. For that he must radically reform the UNP and the party should project a people friendly image, knowing that his rival at the polls is likely to be Gotabhaya Rajapaksa.

Towards this end, some significant changes have already taken place. Party Chairman Malik Samarawickrema and General Secretary Kabir Hashim have resigned. A twelve member ‘Politburo’ will supersede the unwieldy Working Committee as the party’s apex decision making body.

Members were elected to the Politburo by vote. The politburo members are Navin Dissanayake, Akila Viraj Kariyawasam, Harin Fernando, Ranjith Maddduma Bandara, Mangala Samaraweera, Ajith P. Perera, Eran Wickramaratne, J. C. Alawathuwela, Ruwan Wijewardene, Gayantha Karunatilleke, Nalin Bandara and Asoka Priyantha. Deputy Leader Sajith Premadasa and Assistant Leader Ravi Karunanayake will be ex-officio members of the Politburo.

Despite these administrative changes in the structure of the UNP, it remains to be seen whether the party can come up with a comprehensive package of reforms that will convey to the voter the message that it has shed its previous attitudes and is indeed a ‘new look’ UNP.

To do so, the changes it proposes must be real and demonstrable and should include the incorporation of younger politicians with fresh ideas instead of rewarding the ageing party faithful with plum portfolios.

The frenzy of political activity that characterised the period leading up to the motion of no confidence may have died down but, despite the holiday period of the Sinhala and Tamil New Year, the coming weeks will see more critical political decisions being made by all parties in Parliament.



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