February 12, 2018 at 9:29 pm

A painful divorce?

The outcome of the just concluded local government (LG) polls is bound to have a domino effect on the political front. It has already taken its toll on the unity of the Sirisena-Wickremesinghe government, which is showing early signs of disintegration. The constitution-making process is also in jeopardy. Now, it is reported that the UNP is going to jettison the SLFP, which has become a liability and form a government of its own.

Their political marriage of convenience has cost both the UNP and the SLFP dear in terms of votes as evident from the LG polls results. That unprecedented power-sharing arrangement may have helped President Maithripala Sirisena and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe tackle some issues such as the former ruling family’s determined efforts to make a comeback, but their gains haven’t outweighed their losses. Their party members at the grassroots level were never united. The yahapalana government was split down the middle and its leaders were papering over the cracks at the top. In the aftermath of the LG polls disaster, the UNP seems to have told the SLFP, “United we fall, divided we stand.”


It is the SLFP Central Committee (CC) which can decide whether or not the SLFP MPs remain in the UNP-led government. That decision-making body is currently packed with Sirisena loyalists. The Joint Opposition (JO), which is opposed to the SLFP-UNP alliance, is all out to wrest control of the SLFP CC. The UNP apparently doesn’t want to wait till the SLFP, under pressure from the JO, opts for triple talaq, as it were, and pulls out of the unity government.


The Executive President becomes a figurehead to all intents and purposes if he loses control over Parliament. President Chandrika Kumaratunga had to put up with a hostile UNP government from 2001 to 2004. She suffered many indignities at the hands of some UNP ministers at Cabinet meetings even though she could dissolve Parliament. The 19th Amendment has taken away that power and the President now has to grin and bear it even if the party which controls Parliament turns hostile towards him. This must be a worrisome proposition for beleaguered President Sirisena.


In the run-up to Saturday’s polls, President Sirisena called upon the SLFP dissidents to join him so that he could form an SLFP government. Subsequently, he backpedalled obviously under pressure from his yahapalana allies. Ironically, the UNP is now said to be doing what he intended to do—bringing the joint administration to an end.


What will be President Sirisena’s position in the event of the UNP forming its own government? It has 107 seats in Parliament and needs only six more to muster a working majority. Many are the politicians who are ready to sell their souls and the UNP’s goal, therefore, is not unattainable. There are two precedents which President Sirisena can consider following in such an eventuality. He can do as the late President D. B. Wijetunga did under the SLFP-led People’s Alliance government with Chandrika Kumaratunga as the Prime Minister, in 1994. Wijetunga maintained a very low profile without obstructing the PA administration and retired gracefully. Or, President Sirisena can do a Chandrika; he can assert himself and continue to exercise his powers at the risk of antagonising the UNP government. Chandrika sacked the UNP-led UNF government in 2004, regained power in Parliament and then retired after completing her second term. But, the 19th Amendment has clipped President Sirisena’s wings drastically.


President Sirisena is in a dilemma. Many SLFPers who threw in their lot with him are dependent on him for their political survival. It was no secret that they expected him to seek a second term, but their plans have gone awry owing to the shocking LG polls results. Their strength or lack of it has now been exposed. They know the instauration of their political project is well-nigh impossible under the present circumstances. They will have a choice between defecting and retiring.


Immediately after forming the yahapalana government in 2015, Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe likened the political journey he and President Sirisena had set out on to a smooth drive along the Southern Expressway. We argued in this space that the pleasure of their journey would be over when they reached the end of the expressway. Now, they have ahead of them an ordinary highway which may be called ‘hemingway’.