Normality returning to political landscape | Daily News

Normality returning to political landscape

Last week saw President Ranil Wickremesinghe continue his efforts to build a consensus among Opposition parties to form an ‘All-Party Government’ (APG) with a series of discussions with these parties at the Presidential Secretariat in Colombo (now firmly in the hands of proper authorities) and make some progress, receiving positive feedback from several parties.

President Wickremesinghe is mindful that he governs with virtually no support in Parliament for the United National Party (UNP) which he represents. The party’s single National List slot which he occupied prior to becoming the President has now been filled by MP Vajira Abeywardena but that is the solitary vote he has in Parliament.

President Wickremesinghe was elected to the Presidency on the strength of votes he received from Parliamentarians of the Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP). Commanding in excess of 140 seats in Parliament, the majority of them would have contributed towards the 134 votes the President received. There is still much speculation about the votes he may have received from MPs of other political parties.

President’s address

This is a curious instance of a political party’s representatives opting to vote for a candidate from a rival party, rather than the nominee from their own party. It was the SLPP’s Dullas Alahapperuma who contested President Wickremesinghe in Parliament. Alahapperuma received only 82 votes.

A parallel may be drawn with the election of President Maithripala Sirisena in 2015. Just prior to his nomination as a candidate to run against then President Mahinda Rajapaksa, he resigned as General Secretary of the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) and won the election with votes from the UNP.

It was against such a backdrop that the newly appointed President Wickremesinghe addressed the ceremonial opening of Parliament last Wednesday, outlining the policies for his term of office which extends until November 2024. This was at the first sitting of Parliament after it was prorogued.

President Wickremesinghe was widely commended for his speech even by many Opposition figures. In his remarks, he was critical of the previous administration and questioned the wisdom of certain decisions taken by his predecessors, notwithstanding the fact that it was the same ruling party which voted for him to become President.

“Today we are facing an unprecedented situation that our country had never faced in recent history. We are in great danger,” President Wickremesinghe remarked, adding that the country could extricate and be secured from that danger, “only if we all face this challenge together as one”.

President Wickremesinghe strongly re-iterated his call for an APG, saying that “the expectation of all the citizens of the country at this juncture is for all their representatives in Parliament to work together in order to build the country; if we divide, it will harm the entire nation”.

The President explained that an APG is not a Government that acts on the opinion of one party. “It is a Government that comprises the views of all parties within a common policy framework. Decisions will be taken within this common framework and then implemented,” he said.

President Wickremesinghe also dwelt on the difficult times ahead for the country. Unfavourable international economic factors due to the war in Ukraine and the collapse of the world’s major economies due to the Covid-19 pandemic exacerbated and complicated Sri Lanka’s crisis, he said.

The President said the Government has now minimised the duration of power cuts, commenced buying chemical fertilizer for cultivation and was taking steps to ease queues for LP Gas, adopting measures to avoid food shortages and was obtaining medicines and expediting the re-opening of schools. The QR Code system for dispensing fuel has also proved to be a success, almost eliminating the massive queues.

Opposition parties

Commenting on the fuel crisis, President Wickremesinghe noted that Sri Lanka has had to limit selected imports in order to balance payments for fuel. “Therefore, fuel supply has to be restricted. These hardships would need to be borne possibly until the end of this year,” the President pointed out.

The Government has already initiated negotiations with the International Monetary Fund (IMF) on a four-year reform programme and these discussions will continue this month, the President said. The finalisation of the debt restructuring plan has commenced, President Wickremesinghe told Parliament.

It is hoped to raise the economic growth rate to a stable stage, in order to establish a solid economic foundation by 2026, the President said. “Currently, public debt is 140 per cent of Gross Domestic Product (GDP). We wish to reduce this to less than 100 per cent by 2032,” he said.

In keeping with the President’s vision of an APG he has made attempts to convince the two major opposition parties, the SLFP and Samagi Jana Balawegaya (SJB) to join his Government, holding discussions with delegations from both parties which included their leaders.

It is of note that both the SJB and the SLFP do have representatives in the current Cabinet. They are Nimal Siripala de Silva and Mahinda Amaraweera from the SLFP and Harin Fernando and Manusha Nanayakkara of the SJB. They were however first appointed by former President Gotabaya Rajapaksa.

When President Rajapaksa resigned and Ranil Wickremesinghe assumed office as President, he appointed the same Cabinet, with one substitution, that of Ali Sabry, PC as Minister of Foreign Affairs for G. L. Peiris, who was dropped from the Cabinet. Peiris led the SLPP group supporting Alahapperuma and in fact, seconded his nomination.

While President Rajapaksa was in office, he had asked Minister of Ports, Shipping and Aviation Minister Nimal Siripala de Silva to step down while allegations of bribery in connection with the BIA extension project against him were probed. This inquiry is now complete. De Silva has been reinstated in his portfolio by the current President.

In talks with the SLFP, the Opposition party was keen to note that an APG was first mooted by them. The talks were described as successful in that both the President and the SLFP agreed in principle that an APG was required to restore confidence and stability.

Nevertheless, the SLFP is yet to fully commit itself to an APG. A section of its MPs is of the opinion that, while it should support the Government in the positive measures that it takes, its MPs should refrain from accepting any Ministerial positions under President Wickremesinghe.

It is however known that other MPs are keen to obtain portfolios- or even positions at the State Minister level- under a Government headed by President Wickremesinghe. This difference of opinion has prompted the SLFP to adopt a ‘wait and see’ attitude to the invitation extended by the President.

Conflicting views

A similar situation exists following discussions with the SJB. The President gave a patient hearing to lengthy submissions from many SJB stalwarts including its leader Sajith Premadasa, Imtiaz Bakeer Markar and Field Marshal Sarath Fonseka. It was evident that there were diverse views even within the SJB.

Prior to the discussions between the President and the SJB, Party Leader Premadasa, who is also Leader of the Opposition had maintained that the SJB would not accept Ministerial positions in an APG but would work to support the President in his efforts to stabilise the country.

However, it is understood that Premadasa was under pressure from within his own party to change his stance. It was pointed out to him that the SJB was dealing with their former leader with whom they worked for decades and as such was different from working under President Gotabaya Rajapaksa.

It was also known that the two former SJB Parliamentarians Harin Fernando and Manusha Nanayakkara, who now hold Ministerial portfolios after claiming to be ‘independent’ were discussing with individual MPs from the party about the prospects of joining a Cabinet led by the new President.

The names of several SJB MPs have been mentioned in this regard. Of particular interest to President Wickremesinghe is the prospect of obtaining the services of a MP, an economist, who has earned the respect of his colleagues by his accurate predictions about the current economic climate many months ago.

It is a confluence of these factors that prompted Opposition Leader Premadasa to adopt a conciliatory approach towards working with the Government. As of now however, the SJB maintains that, while it will contribute with participation in Parliamentary Committees, it will not accept any Ministerial Portfolios.

President Wickremesinghe also held talks with the ‘Group of 43’ led by former Minister Patali Champika Ranawaka, who had also opted to remain independent of the SJB. Meanwhile, the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) which was due to meet the President on Tuesday, cancelled the meeting later as it had decided against forming an APG.

A call by some groups including Field Marshal Fonseka for further protests against the incumbent Government on Tuesday, August 9 did not materialise into large scale unrest. The coming weeks will likely see the formation of a new Government, possibly an APG, and a Cabinet. Therefore, the country appears to be approaching some degree of normality, a harbinger of better times ahead for the people.



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