Politics, a game of numbers | Daily News


Politics, a game of numbers

The political grapevine is abuzz once more with talk of changes in the National Unity government, brought about by a series of discussions between the leaders of mainstream Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) and its breakaway faction, the Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP) loyal to former President Mahinda Rajapaksa.

That there have been differences of opinion between the two partners in the government, the SLFP and the United National Party (UNP) is no secret. That their two leaders, President Maithripala Sirisena and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe do not see eye to eye on some issues is also self-evident. This is what the SLPP and its parliamentary group, the Joint Opposition (JO) has been focusing on.

Differences over key appointments have contributed to the strained relations between the UNP and the mainstream SLFP. For instance, when a Deputy Inspector General of Police was implicated in an alleged plot to assassinate the President and former Defence Secretary Gotabhaya Rajapaksa, sections of the SLFP wanted Inspector General of Police (IGP) Pujith Jayasundera removed from office.

This however, is easier said than done. The IGP cannot be summarily dismissed unless he resigns and Jayasundera showed no inclination to do so. The SLFP faction complains that Jayasundera is favouring the UNP. This is probably why bribery allegations against Jayasundera, dating back to 2006, suddenly surfaced. The UNP meanwhile maintains that action could be taken against the accused DIG or even IGP only when charges against them have been properly investigated.

Another conflict that appears to be looming is the appointment of a successor to Chief Justice Priyasath Dep who retires this week. It has been reported that the UNP faction prefers the elevation of Attorney General Jayantha Jayasuriya to head the highest court while President Sirisena has indicated he would nominate sitting Supreme Court Justice Eva Wanasundera.


Legal and political circles

Again, the appointment process is complicated. While President Sirisena may make a nomination for the position of Chief Justice, it is subject to approval by the Constitutional Council. The Council itself is in a state of flux at present with several existing vacancies. Therefore, legal and political circles are eagerly observing developments in this regard.

It is against such a backdrop of heightened tensions between the UNP and the mainstream SLFP that the JO is seeking to be opportunistic. Given the SLFP’s lacklustre performance at the local government elections earlier this year, some SLFP parliamentarians loyal to President Sirisena are also backing moves to unite the two factions of the party, if only to secure their political futures.

The thrust of their strategy, conceived with the active participation of stalwarts such as S. B. Dissanayake is to push for a SLFP-JO coalition, instead of the current SLFP-UNP alliance. While this is indeed a better fit in terms of political ideology, there are many hurdles that need to be overcome before such an objective can become a reality.

The professed claim of those agitating for a SLFP-JO coalition is that they need to intervene to offer relief to Sri Lankans in the face of the spiralling cost of living and a nosediving rupee, but few are fooled by such lofty ideals. The aim is to create an ideal environment from which national elections in 2020 could be contested as a single political alliance opposing the UNP.

The proposed regime change envisaged by S. B. Dissanayake and likeminded others is one where Mahinda Rajapaksa is installed as Prime Minister with the formation of a SLFP-JO government. Of course, in the unlikely event that this would eventuate, there would be no need for a separate SLPP, as it could ‘return to the fold’ and coalesce with the parent party, the SLFP, in much the same way as the Democratic United National Front morphed with the UNP after President Ranasinghe Premadasa’s assassination.


Presidential election

Current discussions however focus on a coalition until the election on the premise that the SLFP and the SLPP will contest general elections separately. However, this would be a meaningless exercise and would only lend an advantage to the UNP. The real issue at stake though is not the general election but the presidential elections which are due earlier than the general elections.

For President Sirisena to acquiesce to any kind of arrangement with the SLPP, the latter would have to agree to support the President for a second term of office, arguably in return for Mahinda Rajapaksa being his Prime Ministerial nominee.

President Sirisena has run into difficulties with his more liberal minded Premier Wickremesinghe and how he would govern in tandem with Rajapaksa, who has a more authoritarian approach to power is a significant question. Similarly, whether Rajapaksa would want to be Prime Minister under a President who, under the terms of the Constitution, still wields considerable power is also worthy of discussion.

Such potential personality clashes aside, the other major issue is whether any plan that is devised by those brokering a rapprochement between the two factions, have the numbers to pull it off. All the groups of the United Peoples’ Freedom Alliance, namely, the Sirisena faction, the Rajapaksa faction and the so-called ‘rebel’ group who voted for a vote of no-confidence against Prime Minister Wickremesinghe together command only 95 seats in Parliament. Therein lies a major obstacle.

For Parliament to install a SLFP-JO government and appoint Mahinda Rajapaksa as Prime Minister, it would need the support of at least a simple majority in the House, or 113 seats. With only 95 MPs in its own ranks, there is a shortfall of 18 MPs. It is also extremely unlikely that either the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (6 seats in Parliament) or the Tamil National Alliance (16 seats) will support this move. Thus, the success of the plan depends entirely on defections from the UNP itself.

It will be recalled that, in the lead up to the motion of no-confidence which was also sponsored by the same individuals now promoting a SLFP-JO alliance, there was an expectation that it would receive the support of disgruntled UNPers. That never materialised and not a single UNPer voted against the Prime Minister. In the end, it cost President Sirisena dearly as it was untenable for those SLFPers who voted for the motion to remain in government and many of them left Cabinet rank reluctantly.

It must also be noted that the motion of no-confidence targeted Prime Minister Wickremesinghe whereas the current moves threaten the power bases of all UNPers. Therefore, there is no reason for UNP parliamentarians, even for those with issues with the party’s leadership, to forego sitting in government and join an exercise, the outcome of which is at best uncertain.

In the end, politics is a game of numbers and in this instance, the UNP does have the numbers to trump moves by the opposition to oust it from government, unless there is a mass scale defection from the party for which there is no reason at this stage. Publicly, the UNP has been buoyant with Deputy Leader Sajith Premadasa openly declaring that he does not expect President Sirisena to join hands with the authoritarian forces he helped oust in 2015.

Matters will come to a head at the vote on the Budget next month. It provides the perfect opportunity for both the JO and the UNP test their support in Parliament and prevailing opinion in political circles is that the JO and the SLPP would be better off focusing on the next national elections instead of being in an indecent hurry to grab power before the polls are held.


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