Towards stability in political landscape | Daily News

Towards stability in political landscape

Political configurations in the country took a dramatic turn this week with the appointment of United National Party (UNP) Leader Ranil Wickremesinghe as the Prime Minister and the swearing-in of a new Cabinet of Ministers on Monday, providing hope that solutions to the economic crisis could be found.

Premier Wickremesinghe was sworn in after days of political manoeuvring following the resignation of former Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa after the events of May 9. This is the sixth time Wickremesinghe has been sworn in as Prime Minister (a world record) and may be the most challenging one of his long political career which began in 1977.

President Gotabaya Rajapaksa first offered the Premiership to Samagi Jana Balavegaya (SJB) and Opposition Leader Sajith Premadasa, son of former President Ranasinghe Premadasa. This is on the basis that Premadasa led the party with the second highest number of seats in Parliament. However, Premadasa declined this offer.

Initially the Leader of the Opposition stated that, for the SJB to be a part of any ‘Interim’ Government, it should be preceded by the resignation of the President. The Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) and its Leader Anura Kumara Dissanayake had also made a similar statement.

It is known that Premadasa’s hardline stance was not to the liking of some Parliamentarians in the SJB. Some were of the opinion that, considering the gravity of the economic crisis facing the country, the SJB had a responsibility to contribute to the Government despite political differences of opinion.

New Government

Among those who had a dissenting opinion was former Minister Harin Fernando who was to publicly state that he was prepared to function as an ‘independent’ MP in Parliament, so that he could participate in the initiatives launched by a new Government that would assume office.

Later, Opposition Leader Premadasa wrote to President Rajapaksa stating that he was willing to be appointed Prime Minister if the President agreed to a time frame for the Executive Presidency to be abolished. The President responded stating that Wickremesinghe had by then accepted the Premiership.

It was against such a backdrop that Ranil Wickremesinghe assumed duties. Premier Wickremesinghe has had a chequered political career since he first entered Parliament 45 years ago representing the UNP in the newly created electorate of Biyagama as one of the youngest MPs in that Parliament.

He leapfrogged into the limelight in 1994 after the sudden assassination of then President Ranasinghe Premadasa. Constitutionally, then Prime Minister Dingiri Banda Wijetunga assumed the Presidency and Wickremesinghe, who was functioning as the Leader of the House, was appointed Prime Minister.

President Wijetunga was known as a mild-mannered politician with a laid back, ‘hands off’ style of management and it was left to Wickremesinghe to attend to most of the functions of the Government which found itself suddenly weakened and vulnerable due to the sudden demise of its powerful leader.

The UNP lost the subsequent elections bringing Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga into power as President but Wickremesinghe made a remarkable comeback seven years later, winning a General Election. For the first time, the country was then governed by a President and Prime Minister from different parties, a process known as cohabitation.

CFA with LTTE

That cohabitation was difficult and ended when President Kumaratunga dissolved Parliament early in 2004. However, in his short period in office as Prime Minister, Wickremesinghe was able to enter into a historic Cease Fire Agreement (CFA) with the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), which incidentally was militarily crushed on a day like this exactly 13 years ago.

The CFA was the first of its kind with the LTTE that was sustained for a period of time and though Wickremesinghe was initially hailed for its success, he was equally blamed when it collapsed. This also cost him dearly politically, with his opponents often referring to the CFA as a colossal blunder.

Wickremesinghe, who had earlier lost to Kumaratunga at the Presidential Elections in 1999 also lost to Mahinda Rajapaksa in 2005 by a slim margin but continued as the leader of the UNP. In December 2011, he was challenged for the UNP leadership by Karu Jayasuriya but prevailed, winning by 72 votes to 24.

Wickremesinghe’s most innovative political initiative was seen in 2015 when he endorsed Maithripala Sirisena as a ‘common’ candidate against then incumbent President Mahinda Rajapaksa. Sirisena went on to register an unexpected victory and Wickremesinghe was appointed Prime Minister again.

The relationship between Wickremesinghe and Sirisena was strained by 2018, prompting Sirisena to sack Wickremesinghe and appoint Mahinda Rajapaksa as his Premier. However, the Supreme Court overturned this decision, allowing Wickremesinghe to return to office as Prime Minister after 52 days.

At the 2019 Presidential Election that brought President Gotabaya Rajapaksa into office, Sajith Premadasa was endorsed as the UNP candidate but lost by nearly 1.5 million votes. Subsequently, after Wickremesinghe refused to forgo the UNP leadership, a faction of the UNP broke away from the party and formed the SJB.

At the August 2020 General Election, the once-powerful UNP was unable to win any Seats at the electorate level but, with just over two per cent of the total vote, earned one National List Seat. After months of procrastination and internal debate, Wickremesinghe returned to Parliament in June 2021 to fill that National List Seat.

These events suggest that Prime Minister Wickremesinghe is well-versed in the intrigues and intricacies of politics. His appointment has divided opinion because neither he nor his party has a public mandate as such. However, no one disputes his considerable political and diplomatic skills and experience.

Prior to the resignation of Mahinda Rajapaksa as Prime Minister, the SJB submitted a No Confidence Motion (NCM) against the Premier. With his resignation however, this is not of any relevance now. It is unlikely the SJB will propose a NCM against Wickremesinghe, their former erstwhile leader.

Wickremesinghe has to prove that he has the support of a majority of MPs in Parliament, under the terms of the Constitution. While the major Opposition parties opposed Wickremesinghe’s appointment, whether they will collectively vote against him in a vote in Parliament remains to be seen.

Therefore, it will not be plain sailing for Wickremesinghe as Prime Minister. The initial response to his appointment from most political parties, including the SJB, the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP), the JVP and the group of parties led by former Ministers Wimal Weerawansa and Udaya Gammanpila was negative.

Now however, there are indications that the SLFP is moving towards working with Prime Minister Wickremesinghe. The Premier is due to meet SLFP Leader and former President Maithripala Sirisena for discussions in this regard, with the possibility that the SLFP may be offered some Cabinet portfolios.

Ministerial portfolios

Meanwhile the SJB, in what appears to be a softening of its stance, announced that it will support “all progressive measures” taken by the Government to ease the economic hardships faced by the public. However, the party itself will not accept ministerial portfolios, Secretary Ranjith Madduma Bandara said. It however remains to be seen whether some SJB MPs including Harin Fernando will accept Ministerial portfolios, defying the Party’s stance.

Since the appointment of Wickremesinghe, President Rajapaksa has appointed four other Ministers. They are Dinesh Gunewardena (Public Administration), G.L. Peiris (Foreign Affairs), Prasanna Ranatunga (Urban Development and Housing) and Kanchana Wijesekara (Power and Energy). The latter is seen as being very important due to the current fuel crisis.

Prime Minister Wickremesinghe has maintained a high profile since assuming office. He has met with the envoys of a number of countries who assist Sri Lanka financially and has also held discussions with the Colombo based representatives of the Asian Development Bank (ADB) and the World Bank (WB).

The Prime Minister also made a special statement to the public on Monday night which was telecast live on all TV channels. In his message to the Nation, the Premier provided a detailed statement of the dire state of the country’s economy, giving accurate figures and statistics. He also warned that the next two months would be very challenging economically.

“We must establish a National Assembly or political body with the participation of all political parties to find solutions for the present crisis. This will enable us to discuss with all parties and to arrive at decisions that will enable us to rebuild our Nation within a specified time frame,” the Premier said.

Another event of significance on Monday was the Attorney General S. Rajaratnam instructing the Inspector General of Police (IGP) to immediately arrest and produce 22 persons, including MPs and former Ministers, in connection with the attack on the peaceful protestors at Galle Face (Gotagogama) and opposite Temple Trees.

Among the 22 persons listed are former Minister Johnston Fernando and Parliamentarians Sanath Nishantha, Sanjeewa Edirimanne and Milan Jayatilake as well as Moratuwa Mayor Samanlal Fernando and Senior Deputy Inspector General (Western Province), Deshabandu Tennekoon. Some of them have been arrested subsequently.

With the Prime Minister and four Cabinet Ministers appointed, Parliament met on Tuesday. The first item on the agenda was the election of a Deputy Speaker. This is because Ranjith Siyambalapitiya who was recently re-elected as Deputy Speaker following his own resignation, had resigned again.

In the contest that ensued, the Opposition nominated MP Rohini Kaviratne. Premier Wickremesinghe had earlier proposed that the election of the Deputy Speaker be unanimous. However, the ruling Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP) nominated MP Ajith Rajapaksa for the post and a vote was then held.

Rajapaksa was then elected by 109 votes to 78. Thereafter, a motion to suspend Standing Orders to debate the NCM against President Gotabaya Rajapaksa was moved by Tamil National Alliance (TNA) MP M.A. Sumanthiran and was voted on. This vote was defeated by 119 votes to 68.

While these votes seem a formality, they are also very significant as it is a measure of support for the ruling party which continues to enjoy a Parliamentary majority, albeit not two-thirds. This will be put to the test in the days to come as the SLPP-led Government navigates the current economic, social and political crises.

President Rajapaksa and Prime Minister Wickremesinghe may occupy the highest offices in the land but they have an unenviable task before them, that of saving the country from economic disaster and establishing political stability, while preserving its democratic systems.

 


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