Sathiya Moorthy, 11 June 2018
It is the irony of Sri Lankan times that the 225-member Parliament will now have a Deputy Speaker with only 97 members voting him into position. There were 53 MPs who voted against the winner. The second highest of numbers was those who ‘abstained’, a total of 74, leaving out Speaker Karu Jayasuriya, who did not cast his vote, as is the tradition. The list of abstainees and absentees included former President Mahinda Rajapaksa, who was not present, and yes, TNA’s Leader of the Opposition, R Sampanthan, who actually led his MPs in a walk-out, alongside the JVP on the Sinhala-Buddhist side of the ‘ethnic divide’.
With this, Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe may have won a second Pyrrhic victory after defeating the non-confidence motion (NCM) against his leadership, not too long ago. But the fact that his UNP candidate Ananda Kumarasiri polled less than the House majority of 113 did not seem to deter him or his party. Instead, they were happy – or, at least relieved – that President Maithripala Sirisena’s SLFP candidate, Dr Sudarshini Fernandopulle polled only 53 votes, giving them a 44-vote lead, including some from the SLPP-JO.
It was not a coincidence that JO’s ex-Minister, Vasudeva Nanayakara was on hand to ‘second’ Sudarshini’s candidacy. If someone thought that Mahinda R would be on hand to express solidarity with the medical doctor whom he had inducted into politics after the LTTE had killed her minister-husband, Jeyaraj Fernandopulle, in a suicide attack on Sinhala-Tamil New Year Day, 2008, it was not to be.
The fact that former Speaker and Mahinda’s elder brother Chamal Rajapaksa was present in the House when the vote was called and walked out with 10 other JO members showed that the former President’s absence was not an accident, but an incident. The fact that Sudarshini got more votes than the 16 ‘SLFP rebels’, now getting increasingly identified with President Maithripala Sirisena only shows that the latter’s group is becoming increasingly amorphous and that the SLPP-JO too is not as much of a monolith in parliamentary terms as is being made out to be.
TNA betrays Tamils?
Leading his TNA members in the walk-out ahead of the vote, Leader of the Opposition Sampanthan took a ‘principled stand’, if that could be called so, that by the (forgotten) agreement from the Government-formation days, the Deputy Speaker’s job should have gone to Sirisena’s SLFP as Speaker Jayasuriya was from the UNP partner in the ruling coalition. As the UNP had violated the principle, owing possibly to the higher numbers that they had in the coalition and also could muster for the vote, they were acting unilaterally, seemed to have been his contention.
Prime Minister Ranil would have none of it. Responding to Sampanthan, he said that the agreement was for the SLFP to field a Government member and not a ‘rebel’ in Dr Sudarshini. He conceded that the Sirisena camp did throw up some other names too but they too were not acceptable to them.
If Ranil was saying that Sudarshini did not represent the Sirisena camp, then he was telling the latter that they did not now have the 16 ‘rebel’ MPs who voted in favour of the NCM only weeks ago, and had weakened more than already. Alternatively, Ranil and the UNP were daring Sirisena to come out in the open and declare that Sudarshini was after all their candidate, too, and then face the consequences.
But the real let-down was the TNA, which gave upon the combine’s much-touted ‘Tamil cause’ one more time. Ahead of finalising Sudarshini, the SLFP had proposed the name of party’s Tamil MP from the North, Ankajan Ramanathan. The Tamil irony becomes worse if one recalled the fact that there was no other serious ‘Sinhala-Buddhist’ majority opposition to the candidacy, sans that of the TNA.
Short of a Tamil President, Tamil Prime Minister or a Tamil Speaker, this was the closest that the Sinhala-Buddhist parties were willing to accept for the Tamils just now.
But then the TNA’s ‘sole representative’ mentality would not let them accept any Tamil who was not TNA. Given the complexity of the Government combine politics, they could have also insisted that the UNP and/or the SLFP fielded a Tamil MP from their grouping(s) for the job. Again, they would have none of it, so the question was never flagged. So much for the TNA’s commitment to the larger ‘Tamil cause’!
Poaching still on
By proving a political point even outside of Parliament through the Deputy Speaker’s election, the UNP has thrown the gauntlet at the Sirisena camp after defeating the NCM. Their fast-tracking the Constitution-making process is also to try and keep the TNA on their side in case of a show-down, or even crash parliamentary polls, which under 19-A cannot happen any time before six months ahead of the end of the existing term, which is only in March 2020. Sirisena’s presidential term ends in early January 2020.
Prime Minister Wickremesinghe has since reiterated his post-NCM declaration that the ‘unity Government’ (???) would stay on. If the President’s camp is so very disenchanted, disillusioned and distanced from the UNP leader of the coalition inside Parliament, which alone counts just now, then a stable government can become possible, if the former divests the latter of all ministerial responsibilities as a party, group or faction.
Clearly, this could well indicate that the UNP is ready to formally launch a poaching game for SLFP parliamentarians, including Ministers. The ball is in the UNP court, not because it has the single largest group of elected MPs on its side. It is more so because Wickremesinghe has more than once demonstrated through the past years in power that he runs a monolith and stable party, now, compared especially to Sirisena’s SLFP.
If SLFP Ministers/MPs were to formally join hands with the UNP, either by joining the party outright or are encouraged to form a second ‘rebel group’ that would align with the UNP-led UNF in Government, it would not be for stability or continuity, as some of them would come to parrot the tired, old lines from the JRJ, CBK and MR past. It would be for power and pelf, and whatever ministerial positions could offer each one of them.
At best, in terms of ‘principled politics’ (sic-k), they are convinced that they cannot win their parliamentary seats the next time round in Sirisena’s company and that MR would not want to have them, either. In between, the UNP is under compulsion of its own making for mustering the numbers if only to ensure that the Deputy Speaker of its choice has the support of the whole House when he comes to chair sessions in the absence of Speaker Karu J, who has demonstrated his authority in his own inimitable way, after all!