Sri Lankan Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe proved once again that he is a survivor par excellence. A veteran of many battles for survival in his long career, Wickremesinghe on Wednesday convincingly defeated a no-confidence motion against him.
In the House of 225 including the Speaker, 122 voted against the motion, 76 for, and 26 abstained.
The odds against Wickremesinghe were heavy. His principle governmental coalition partner, the Sri Lanka Freedom Party headed by the President of Sri Lanka, Maithripala Sirisena, had entered into a cynical alliance with the opposition to oust him. Wickremesinghe’s own United National Party was divided, with a vocal section itching to eject him from the leadership. In fact, 27 of the United National Party’s 81 MPs were publicly parading as rebels.
But at the end of a day of hectic activity when the loyalty of MPs across parties was in doubt and rumors flew thick and fast, Wickremesinghe emerged winner in a breath-taking thriller. The victory is both a personal triumph and a re-affirmation of the unity of Wickremesinghe’s party and its alliance. But dissensions in the coalition government will continue.
To secure the victory, Wickremesinghe had to sort out his problems with his party, the United National Party. The party’s second line of leadership had been alienated by Wickremesinghe’s perceived standoffish manner, elitism and dictatorial tendencies combined with the feeling that power was being controlled by a small coterie around him. The disaffection had begun to spread to the grassroots level too. The party wanted him to be more left wing and nationalistic instead of blindly following the political and economic agendas of the West.
After much dilly dallying, Wickremesinghe eventually by agreed to carry out reforms on the weekend. He promised to infuse new blood to reorient the party’s thinking on issues. He also subtly pushed the notion that there is no alternative leader in the party. The second line of leadership was vocal but patently weak because it was neither united nor did it have a leader of national stature.
Contradiction with coalition partner
The second problem Wickremesinghe was facing was the intense opposition from his government coalition partner, the Sri Lanka Freedom Party led by President Maithripala Sirisena.
For the past year, the Sri Lanka Freedom Party had been campaigning for Wickremesingh’s removal. Intensifying the “Remove Ranil” campaign was the outcome of the February 10 all-Island local bodies elections. The opposition Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna led by former Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa had swept the polls, leaving no one in doubt as to who was the top dog in Lankan politics.
Leaders and cadres of the bruised Sri Lanka Freedom Party, barring Sirisena, felt that they would have done better had they tied up with the nationalistic and left-wing Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna instead of being tied to the apronstrings of the United National Party led by a right winger like Wickremesinghe.
The Sri Lanka Freedom Party wanted the President to sack Wickremesinghe and replace him with some one else from the or even leave the alliance with the United National Party and form a coalition government with the Joint Opposition/Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna.
But sacking the prime minister was not possible under the country’s 19th Amendment. As per the law, the prime minister has to go only if the government loses a vote on a money bill or when the government loses a no-confidence motion against it. The no-confidence motion has to be against the government as a whole and not any particular individual.
The opposition went in for no-confidence motion. But it erred by directing it against the prime minister personally and not against the government as such. President Sirisena made a last-minute bid to persuade Wickremesinghe to resign to avoid facing the motion. Wickremesinghe stood his ground because by then, his party and its alliance partners in the United National Front had rallied round him.
Nevertheless, the opposition went ahead with the motion, if only to bring down Wickremesinghe’s political stock by several notches.
Winners and losers
The real loser in the battle is not the opposition led by Rajapaksa but President Sirisena and his Sri Lanka Freedom Party. The Sri Lanka Freedom Party was split, with some voting for the motion, others voting against, and some abstaining. The joint opposition gained as its tally went up from 54 to 76.
Wickremesinghe and the United National Party are expected to become more assertive and strident in their approach to the Sri Lanka Freedom Party and President Sirisena. The President, never very assertive, might find it more difficult to counter Wickremesinghe’s policies.
But under pressure from the Sri Lanka Freedom Party to join hands with the opposition led by the popular Rajapaksa, the President might attempt to stall Wickremesinghe’s plans, making the government more nonfunctional than it is now. That will give grist to Rajapaksa’s political mill ahead of the January 8, 2020, Presidential election and the August 2020 parliamentary elections.
An unstable government rent by internal differences would affect Sri Lanka’s relations with other countries like India, China and the West. While the West is insisting that the Lankan government implement the September 2015 UN Human Rights Council’s demanding resolution on ethnic reconciliation, India and China would like their projects to be implemented, as both find the going to be very slow because of political instability and policy paralysis.
While the government has been somewhat welcoming as regards Chinese investments, it has been reluctant to respond to India’s pleas to implement agreed projects.
Indo-Lankan MoUs to implement a broad range of infrastructural and energy projects were signed in April 2017 but none of them has taken off to date. Talks on the India-proposed Economic and Technical Cooperation Agreement have been going on interminably without an end in sight. In the absence of political consensus, chances of this pact or any other project being implemented are dim.
To work its way out of the imbroglio, Sri Lanka may have to conduct early elections, as opposition leader Rajapaksa has suggested. But as per the Constitution, a snap election can be held only sometime in 2019.