Featured image courtesy Colombo Gazette
On April 4, the no-confidence motion against the Prime Minister was defeated after a marathon 12 hour Parliamentary debate, with 122 MPs voting against the motion, and 76 voting in favour, while 26 MPs abstained from the vote.
There was no shortage of volte-faces in the run-up to the vote. State Minister of Irrigation and Water Resource Management Palitha Range Bandara, who initially said he and 27 other UNP MPs would back the no-confidence motion, changed his decision at the last moment. Parliamentarian Ven. Athuraliya Rathana Thero, who initially said he “could not oppose” the no-confidence motion, as the yahapaalanaya Government had betrayed the principles it stood for, later chose to abstain from voting. However, the biggest turnaround was from several Government MPs, many from President Maithripala Sirisena’s SLFP, who declared that they would support the motion against the Prime Minister.
Following the vote, 33 UNP MPs signed a letter demanding that 6 of the MPs who had voted in favour be removed from their posts. A defiant SLFP MP Dayasiri Jayasekara said that the defectors had offered to resign, and that President Sirisena had refused to accept their resignation. In a subsequent press conference, President Sirisena urged all political parties to work together, irrespective of party differences, and added that a proposed Cabinet reshuffle would be discussed at the Central SLFP Committee meeting on April 9. (Update: Since posting this, 16 MPs, including 6 Cabinet Ministers, have resigned from the Government.)
In an interesting development, Joint Opposition MP Namal Rajapakse tweeted that President Sirisena had “betrayed” the SLFP, encouraging MPs to vote for the motion and then “backing off.” This, as well as Sirisena’s reported statement at a meeting of party representatives that he would allow SLFP MPs to vote “according to how they feel” indicated a split within the governing coalition.
#SriLanka President @MaithripalaS’s habit of betrayal proven again at #NoConfidenceMotionSL against Prime Minister @RW_UNP. First he encouraged SLFP members to support it and then backs off. He has betrayed both the SLFP & UNP.
— Namal Rajapaksa (@RajapaksaNamal) April 4, 2018
There were many questions raised online on the fate of the MPs holding portfolios who had voted in favour of the no-confidence motion (implicitly stating that they had no confidence in the government), the fate of the reforms programme that was part of the coalition government’s mandate, and indeed, the future of the coalition government itself.
Groundviews spoke to a cross-section of MPs and civil society for comments on the unfolding situation.
State Minister of Finance, Eran Wickramaratne speaking to Groundviews noted that the dissident voices within the Government had separated themselves as a result of the no-confidence motion. “You cannot act within the Government and simultaneously not have confidence in it. That’s not logical,” Wickramaratne said. (He was proved right when the MPs resigned from their posts). However, he added that the Government had managed to retain a two-thirds majority during the vote, taking away the atmosphere of uncertainty that has prevailed since the February 10 local government elections.
“I think now is there is ample opportunity for a ministerial reshuffle, and a relaunch of the Government’s programme for the next two years,” he added.
Unsurprisingly, Joint Opposition MP Dinesh Gunawardena did not share Wickramaratne’s optimism. “The no-confidence motion was moved on known public facts, which has caused damage to the Central Bank,” he said. “Though the UNP had the numbers, there has been a political crisis. The UNP lost its two-thirds majority in Parliament for the first time in history, as SLFP Ministers voted against the Prime Minister who is the head of the Cabinet. The numbers might win, but these problems cannot be solved in this manner. This instability will affect the economy as well.”
Shortly after the motion, former President Mahinda Rajapakse said that the Joint Opposition would have prevailed if all the SLFP MPs had voted in favour. This is false, as even counting the 26 who abstained from voting would have brought the brought the “for” vote to 102, short of the majority needed.
Head of Media Research – Verite Research Deepanjalie Abeywardana said that the UNP had emerged in a stronger position following the no-confidence motion. This was unusual since such motions usually delegitimised or reduced the power of the person they were leveled at, yet Wickremesinghe had emerged stronger as UNP leader and Prime Minister. “The way they were able to gather everyone to stand together, including dissidents like Wijeyadasa Rajapakshe and Ven Athuraliye Rathana Thero is remarkable. On the other hand, Sirisena’s position has weakened, as he failed to take a stance, both before and after the no-confidence motion.” Abeywardana observed. He had remained relatively silent after, making him look like a weak leader. Abeywardana felt that Sirisena had three options – resign with dignity, as former South African President Nelson Mandela did, (an unlikely proposition), continue with the status quo and the unity government, or join hands with the Joint Opposition. “I don’t know which option he would go for,” she said, adding however that none of the options were easy prospects for him.
Head of Political Research, Janeen Fernando, Verite Research said that he felt the outcome of the no-confidence motion was positive for the UNP and the Prime Minister. “[The motion] saw the UNP close ranks despite rumours and threats of defection. They also managed to retain support of the smaller parties within the United National Front for Good Governance, including all the minority parties, with the exception of one abstention,” Fernando said.
“However, this may be considered a mere temporary respite for the UNP, as it won on Parliamentary strength, based on a mandate that is over two years old. The UNP has since lost a quarter of its voters compared to 2015, and the result with this motion has no significant bearing on that electoral popularity problem.”
The outcome was in fact most positive for the Joint Opposition, Fernando said, particularly due to the about face from the 17 MPs from SLFP. “The no-confidence motion can, to some extent, be interpreted as reflective of the ripple effects of the local government election campaign and outcome. In the campaign, the SLFP took a strongly anti-UNP stance making the co-habitation within the unity government less tenable. In terms of outcome, the party lost a bulk of the SLFP leaning voter base to the SLPP. The SLFP’s gravitation towards the JO hence is a logical progression to the force led by Rajapaksa that has emerged as the ‘true’ or ‘new’ SLFP.”
As a result, Fernando said, the most urgent need would be a power-sharing arrangement or a parting of ways between the UNP and SLFP – any other alternative seemed unrealistic as it would result in a deadlock. “The fragile grouping of the SLFP faction in government has come under severe strain after emerging a distant third [during the local government elections], and may be considered unviable leading MPs to seek alternative alignments prior to the next national election cycle.” As a result, those within the SLFP might either align with the UNP or leave the Government and join the Joint Opposition, as the only viable options for them, he said.
Rights activist Thyagi Ruwanpathirana felt that the top priority of the coalition government was to achieve the mandate given to it in 2015; not an easy task given the pushback the Government regularly receives from the Joint Opposition. “Creating chaos is exactly the Joint Opposition’s strategy, because unlike the Government, they have realized their biggest obstacle to coming back to power is if the coalition Government achieves what it set out to do,” Ruwanpathirana said.
The no-confidence motion also signified a serious dislike of the Prime Minister’s leadership. In the immediate aftermath, the motion appeared to have split apart the SLFP faction while uniting the UNP. “It’s up to the President to give leadership to the SLFP to bring the two factions together… the ball is very much in his court,” she said.
Meanwhile, political analyst Professor Jayadeva Uyangoda, said he felt that the Government should focus on healing division between the two main partners of the coalition government as an urgent priority. Given that the SLFP as a party was in disarray, it was unlikely they would take punitive action against those who had voted for the no-confidence motion in its ranks, or indeed those who abstained. The pressure to remove these MPs would likely come from the UNP (a prediction which subsequently has been proved accurate). However, Uyangoda opined that it seemed likely that the Prime Minister would not lead this call, opting instead to act cautiously in order not to deepen existing antagonism between the two parties. However, it seemed likely that the rupture within the Government might prove too deep to heal, he added.
Speaking to Groundviews after the resignation of the SLFP MPs, political analyst Tisaranee Gunasekara said that the Government could see this as an opportunity to reclaim the 2015 mandate, and regain a spirit of cooperation, such as when the President and Prime Minister worked together for the passage of the 19th amendment to the constitution.
Cost of living should be a priority for the Government going forward, she said.
“When democratic rulers lose sight of the economic underpinnings of democracy, democracy itself is threatened. If cost and standard of living issues are not addressed the government will lose the first two rounds of provincial council elections and the crisis will resume in a far more virulent form. But if the government can regain public confidence… then it can win the Provincial Council polls. That would create the necessary conditions to address more controversial political issues, including the all important task of formulating a new constitution.”
In the meantime, the SLFP would have to reinvent itself to ensure its survival, particularly as its position as one of the two main parties had been usurped by the SLPP. Competing with the SLPP for the Sinhala-Buddhist national banner would also likely result in the SLFP becoming a political nonentity by the next national election, she said.
Instead, the SLFP could choose to take on issues that the UNP had either abandoned or acted against, she said; the struggle against corruption, accountability for wrongdoers under the previous government, a more inclusive economic agenda prioritising social over physical infrastructure projects and moving away from Chinese investment, protecting the environment (considering President Sirisena’s intervention for the preservation of the Muthurajawela sanctuary) or appealing to the minority vote base. “The SLFP did better in the North and the East than it did in the deep South at the local government polls. That performance is both a warning and a signal about pitfalls and potentialities.”
The fate of the reform processes initiated by the Government was an important and unresolved question following the no-confidence motion.
TNA MP Sumanthiran reiterated the sentiments made in his speech that it was important that the Government should implement its mandate. “You don’t form a national unity Government every day. For the first time, we have all the parties have collaborated together to set up a Constitutional Assembly and attempt to build a new constitution. Though we may be dissatisfied at the pace of reforms, it is at least a step in the right direction,” Sumanthiran said. This was the reason that the TNA had decided to oppose the no confidence motion, as they feared a slide or reversal of the national unity government. “Just because there are delays, there is no reason to abandon this process.” Sumanthiran added that it was a reasonable deduction that this was only the first in a series of steps on the part of the Joint Opposition to get back into office, and this too was a reason that the TNA had chosen to ‘nip such moves in the bud.”
Researcher from the Centre for Policy Alternatives (CPA), Luwie Ganeshathasan noted that the while the no-confidence motion provided an opportunity for the Government to refocus on constitutional reform, this outcome was unlikely, since achieving the 150 votes needed to pass a new constitution in Parliament would be increasingly difficult. A referendum would be difficult due to the chaos and division within the Government following the local Government elections, he added.
“The biggest threat to the government is that they will hobble through the remainder of their term without achieving any sort of meaningful reform. ”
Meanwhile, Senior Lecturer from the Department of Sociology, University of Colombo, Dr Farzana Haniffa said that the Government’s focus should be on corruption, reconciliation and accountability in the wake of the violence in Digana, as top priority areas.
“[The Government] needs to be better about keeping the populace informed about its successes, and have greater sensitivity to the needs of its voter base. The UNP’s elite-centric politics must shift in a manner so that the less affluent also feel that their needs are addressed,” Haniffa said. Meanwhile, there would have to be a shift in the President’s leadership style for the SLFP to come together and function successfully.
Speaking further, Dr. Haniffa said that urgent issues went unaddressed due to “political wheeling and dealing” in relation to the no-confidence motion. “The incidents in Kandy should be dealt with by taking prosecutions for perpetrators forward as well as a counter-campaign to undermine anti-Muslim sentiment that has been cultivated. Many are saying that the next bout of anti Muslim violence is imminent and that it is a question of” when” and not “if”. We as a country cannot afford to lose another generation to a senseless confrontation. We have to strategise better to get out of this cycle of violence that we are trapped in,” she said.
Speaking on the transitional justice process, Senior Researcher from the Centre for Policy Alternatives, Bhavani Fonseka noted the “extremely disappointing” progress on transitional justice, with many of the commitments made in 2015 yet to be realised. “The inability of this government to have a plan in terms of implementation, involve the various stakeholders including victim communities from across Sri Lanka in a conversation around TJ and initiate a coherent communication strategy to explain how Sri Lankan’s are able to benefit from the proposals all demonstrate the lack of political will and leadership necessary for transformative reforms in a post war context. It is indeed disappointing that only one of the four mechanisms promised is established and many confidence building measures still to be fully implemented,” Fonseka said that given the division within Government, serious concerns persisted on whether the Government would be able to keep pace with its commitments.
Adding to the confusion, a further no-confidence motion against the 6 SLFP MPs who had voted in favour of the no confidence motion against the Prime Minister, as well as Deputy Speaker of Parliament Thilanga Sumathipala was handed over to the Speaker on April 6. The SLFP Committee on Monday (April 9) may be critical in determining how the Government will move ahead in the immediate future.
Editor’s Note: Also read “After the NCM: Thinking About Positive Possibilities” and “The Fall of the No Confidence Motion Against the Prime Minister”