16 July 2017
Come September and the question would be upper-most in the minds of everyone, more than Constitution-making, economy and whatever: “Where from here, the unity Government, the unity of the Government, and possibly, the Government itself?” There is a caveat, thankfully. President Maithiripala Sirisena should convince his so-called ‘rebellious’ MPs to fall in line, and also convince the party and the nation about the seriousness that he and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe’s UNP attaches to the business of governance.
It is not without reason. The two-year contract of convenience that their two parties signed at the conclusion of the successful parliamentary polls of August 2015 is coming up for review this September. Ahead of the parliamentary poll victory, the two together had led a national combine that defeated incumbent President Mahinda Rajapaksa and installed Sirisena in his place.
But both were ‘negative’, anti-incumbency vote, whatever the reason. Despite flagging high hopes in the minds of every voter – whether the latter had voted them or no – the duo’s ‘Government of National Unity’ (GNU) has not lived up to the aspirations and hopes, expectations and promises. The nation could not have been more lenient to them.
The nation thus played along with President Sirisena broke the constitutional mandate to swear in Ranil W as Prime Minister (like most of his predecessors, proving that his call for political propriety, form and content died with his election). The nation, Parliament in particular, went along further, while passing the 19th Amendment, which provided for more ministers when an GNU of the kind was in office, implying that it could well be more than a one-time affair.
It has not to be. Rather than using the past two years and more to consolidate their ‘unity’, the two sides have only caused reasons for widening the gap. It is becoming increasingly clear that the UNP in particular is playing its game of one-upmanship with finesse on the one hand and utter contempt on the other. The UNP seems wanting to go it alone in the presidential and parliamentary polls, when due in 2020, or have the Sirisena faction of the SLFP on its term – much worse than a junior partner.
Without his followers noticing it and adversaries taunting him, already six months in circa 2017 have slipped by Mahinda R, after he chose the calendar year to (try)oust the incumbent Government. There are no signs of it happening at this rate. It would mean that the Rajapaksa camp has to be pushing for such an ouster, or at least be seen as attempting to do so. Without such signals, no one from the Government side is going to respond or even make a counter-move.
By implication, the ‘ouster’ would have to be done through a no-trust vote in Parliament. Alternatively, visible numbers from the Government side have to cross-over in the interregnum or declare to be ‘Independent’. This would give the ‘defectors’ a better bargaining position, be it with the Rajapaksa camp, or the incumbent Government leaders, jointly or severally.
It’s a defining moment for the Rajapaksa camp. If they did not make any ‘attempt’ as he had vowed, or threatened, it would be seen as a major failure way ahead of Elections-2020. If he tried and failed, it would still be something. Any momentum for the future would still be set only by the number of ‘defectors’ he could entice – and also his ensuring that none from his camp crossed over’.
Worse still for the Rajapaksas, time would then be up for Ranil W, still then as Prime Minister, to prove his counter-vow – to put Mahinda R out of business and curse himself for attempting anything against the Government by Poya-2018. Translated, it could well mean that the Government would have ‘fixed’ the Rajapaksas in one of the many court cases initiated so far.
It is anybody’s guess how the Ranil leadership plans to reach there after winding up the anti-graft probe institutions of their imagination – which is what is being attempted just now. The question of political credibility of the entire exercise would have already suffered worse than already! Any attempt then against the Rajapaksas would be accepted as ‘political victimisation’ even by his adversaries of every hue.
Perform or perish?
Reports that President Sirisena has given Ranil’s Government three months to perform or exit needs to be seen in this background. In doing so, Sirisena has once again distanced himself from a leadership of which he is a partner.
As SLFP leader, Sirisena is a junior partner. As the President of the nation, he has a veto power on all matters, political and constitution. Through the past two years and more, he has not shied away from reminding the UNP partners as to who is the boss. That is whenever he chooses to remind himself of his own constitutional powers, and political conveniences.
Sirisena’s belated postures on UNHRC-related war-crime probe, the transfer of Hambantota Port stakes to the Chinese, on issues involved in the ‘Avant Garde floating armoury’ row, and more importantly, the ‘Central Bank bond scam’ did not go unnoticed. By letting others speak and shout around, and coming up with his position when the dust begins to settle down, Sirisena also has had the last word on any subject under national discourse.
Invariably, Sirisena’s last-word has also ticked off Prime Minister Ranil and the UNP members of the National Unity Government (NUG). In all this, the President has invariably spared ministerial colleagues from his SLFP faction, or those from other alliance partners.
Sense of freedom
The problem with the present Government is that it achieved its real goals in the early hours of 9 January 2015. It was then that incumbent Rajapaksa conceded defeat when only less than half the votes from the previous day’s nation-wide polling had been counted.
For all those that felt and believed that the Rajapaksas were (still) stifling democracy and human rights in every which way, long after the successful conclusion of ‘Eelam War IV’, the very idea of his defeat restored the sense of freedom that they had visualised with the death of Prabhakaran. It did not even have to wait until that evening when both Sirisena and Ranil were sworn in, into office.
It’s also the problem of perception that has impacted on the performance and popularity of the current Government from that very day, very moment. Whenever ‘negative votes’ decide elections, the problem of the victor identifying the voter-preferences has always haunted his or her term in office – never capable of being identified and addressed.
The Rajapaksas had obviously looked at a certain vote-share from the North and the East, where the Tamil and Muslim votes were concentrated. Capital City Colombo, where there was a concentration of both communities, had been a traditional stronghold of his UNP rivals.
When the real-figures from these districts began showing up, Mahinda R did the relatively graceful thing of conceding the elections than pretending to do otherwise. All of it also happens to show how the Rajapaksa camp was sure of their poll figures from the Sinhala-South, or also about the entire pre-poll calculations.
This still gives an advantage to the Rajapaksa camp, considering that he could muster 45-47 percent of the polled votes in both the presidential and parliamentary polls in 2015. In the case of the parliamentary polls, neither was he in power, nor could his camp (say, the SLFP under Sirisena) claim any share in the Tamil and Muslim votes from the North and the East.
After a point, and closer to whatever elections that are possible in the near future, incumbent MPs and other elected members, including those in the nine Provincial Councils, will be looking for whoever could win their own seats for them. Independent of the presidential, parliamentary and provincial council polls, the nation-wide local government polls are long pending.
Among the Sinhala parties, the Rajapaksa image still has ‘saleability’. The UNP voter and cadre-base are nearly intact. The Sirisena camp is in jitters. They want the Rajapaksa votes, but not the man. They continue to encourage – or, at least not discourage – the Ranil Government to legally proceed against the Rajapaksas, starting with Mahinda R.
Even without any of this, three main leaders from the Rajapaksa camp are disqualified from contesting elections. Mahinda R cannot now run for a third term after 19-A replaced the 18-A he brought in when in power, precisely to facilitate his contesting a third time. Brothers Basil and Gota are ‘foreign citizens’ and are thus barred.
The question also remains if Mahinda R could ‘transfer’ all votes of his to a third candidate, including other family members, say, politician-son Namal R. No one is however talking about the senior-most of the Rajapaksas, namely, Chamal R, who was relatively non-controversial and equally less popular.
For the MPs, from whichever side of the aisle, especially from the majority Sinhala polity, the question of choosing between the incumbent and the predecessor camp really arises only after the presidential polls of January 2020, or only ahead of the next parliamentary elections in August that year. That is not the case with powers-that-be, and powers that want to be.
The Rajapaksa camp would have to win the presidency in January 2020 at the latest, and their rivals have to sort out their own issues among themselves – and with the Tamil, Muslim and Upcountry Tamil backers from 2015. Not to upset the apple-cart, they have to continue with Sirisena as their candidate, if at all. But he will require greater acceptability from UNP cadres and voters than in 2015.
On the reverse, the UNP has to become more acceptable to the Sirisena camp MPs and Ministers within the ruling coalition. This is not unachievable, yet has not been achieved, nonetheless. For it is also a major determining factor for the MPs and a deterrent for the Rajapaksa camp.
Minorities decide, still
For now, Sirisena has reportedly ‘given the Government’ (as if he and his SLFP faction are not part of it) to prove itself. By doing so, he seems to have also extended the deadline for reviewing the coalition agreement by two months, beyond the September deadline.
For now, his camp says that the Sirisena leadership of the SLFP would not grant any nomination to Mahinda R for contesting any future elections. They said so ahead of the parliamentary polls of 2015, but could not resist the pressure from the cadres, who said only Mahinda R could get votes for the party. It proved thus in the end.
There are also other stake-holders, of Tamil, Muslim and Upcountry Tamil parties, and also smaller Sinhala parties. They would be waiting from signals before making their moves and/or taking their decisions. Already, there are storms in the Tamil (TNA) and Muslim tea-cups, the former owing to the ‘Wigneswaran rebellion’, and the latter still continuing to be caused by the Bodu Bala Sena (BBS).
They all thus have ready reasons or excuses to make their own moves, but then they do not want to be seen as wanting to upset the apple-cart, however upset they are otherwise. If it happens, then the incumbent Government leadership cannot stop real movement and momentum in the Sinhala polity.
The unity of the Government and the Government per se are thus hinging on to the indecisions of the ‘minority’ parties more than the rest. Thankfully for them, then, the ‘minority’ parties cannot afford to go back to the Rajapaksa camp, at least not as yet. For the same reason, Sirisena and Ranil, too, could not go their ways, even leaving aside how upset their international backers then could get!