Photo courtesy South China Morning Post

The outcome of the voting at the conclusion of parliamentary debate yesterday on the No Confidence Motion in the Prime Minister has three immediate and readily visible political consequences. Firstly, it strengthened the position of Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe and the UNP within the coalition government. Secondly, the voting also both strengthened and weakened the Joint Opposition (JO). While managing to split the SLFP led by President Sirisena and thereby gaining political advantage over the President and the SLFP, the JO failed to sustain its winning momentum gained at the recently held local government elections.

The third outcome is no less significant. It broke the unity of President Sirisena’s SLFP and helped form two camps – those who voted for the NCM, and those, the majority, who abstained from voting, indirectly supporting the PM. This also ended the President’s not so hidden campaign to oust from office Ranil Wickremasinghe as the Prime Minister and decisively weaken the UNP’s position within the coalition government.

New Equation

Thus, the first phase of the power struggle between Wickremesinghe-led UNP, Sirisena-led SLFP, and Rajapaksa-led JO has come to an end with an interesting re-configuration of power relations in the country.  Contrary to expectations of both the JO and President Sirisena, the UNP has emerged stronger, pushing the JO and President Sirisena to the second and third positions respectively.  Ministers who voted for the NCM and abstained from voting represent two distinct political trends within the SLFP, with the potential to develop itself into a source of a new split.  Thus, the task of preventing another major rupture within the SLFP would be added to the busy workload of President Sirisena.

Meanwhile, the new equation, that was crystalised last night, also has the potential to provide incentives for the reinvention and re-building of the coalition government, led by President Sirisena and Prime Minister Wickremesinghe in discordance for the past several months. The time has indeed come for both leaders to have a sober introspection into what went wrong so far in their handling of the coalition government since January 2015.

For a Cooperative Coalition

A key lesson awaiting their attention is the following: if the coalition government were to function effectively till the end of 2019, the two camps will have to chalk out a new strategy of cooperative coalition governance.

This puts separate demands on each of the two leaders. On President Sirisena’s part, he needs to realize that his intention of removing Ranil Wickremasinghe as the PM and finding a docile replacement has effectively come to an end. He has to now learn to work in collaboration with a PM who he may personally dislike.  It is a strange law in politics that one cannot always choose people with whom one enjoys working.  India’s top leadership of the BJP government is an example. Leaders who are known to personally dislike each other have learnt to work politically in a spirit of compromise.

President Sirisena also needs to critically review his ambition of obtaining a second term in office in 2020. Last night’s configuration of forces shows that the minority parties and minority voters are not likely to trust President Sirisena over Prime Minister Wickremasinghe or his UNP. With a candidate from the Rajapaksa camp, President Sirisena might not find it easy to become even a credible presidential candidate.

Thus, and as things stand at present, President Sirisena’s political future is still bound with the dynamics of the yahapalanaya coalition. If it is revived, with a return to its original mandate of January 2015 and cementing the coalition with the UNP and other parties, President Sirisena might be able to chart out a graceful next phase in his political career.

The prospects for the UNP and Prime Minister Wickremesinghe are also similar in terms of the depth of the challenges they have to confront.  Threats to Wickremesinghe’s position as the UNP leader are an old story. If we turn to other issues, they too are formidable. In the short run, the UNP should not think it possible to go it alone, without the SLFP or President Sirisena, in the form of a minority government. Mr. Sirisena holds a great deal of constitutional authority in his capacity as the President of the Republic under the 19thAmendment. The UNP also needs the solid support of the SLFP if it were to implement any new policy initiatives meant to serve their unfulfilled promises.

New Approach

This is where a new framework of cooperative coalition governance needs be invented without delay. Political management of the coalition government requires an entirely new approach, very different from the casual approach the PM Wickremasinghe has been following since the beginning of the present government and the combative approach that President Sirisena adopted of late.

Similarly, the UNP leaders should not take for granted the support extended to them last night by the Tamil and Muslim parties. The latter have legitimate expectations that their grievances and concerns will be addressed soon, turning words into deeds and tangible action. The effective cementing and further consolidation of the understanding between the UNP and the minority parities is essential for Sri Lanka’s democracy. This is particularly crucial in the light of the reported warning by President Sirisena that the UNP leadership should not depend on the TNA’s support to win against the NCM.  At a time when some Sinhalese leaders still see the minorities as untouchables in times of political crisis, the UNP, as demonstrated last night, is the only mainstream party that considers political cooperation with minority parties legitimate, and perhaps, more than instrumentalist.

Finally, political conflicts have their own dynamics. The conflict between president Sirisena and Prime Minister Wickremesinghe slowly evolved over a period of two years and suddenly escalated late last year, exploding in the open during the past two months. What we saw is a culmination of the conflict with some surprising outcomes and unforeseen consequences. What is unusual about the last night’s political drama is that no party won a decisive victory. No party suffered a decisive defeat either. The outcomes are actually provisional. They thus offer a new opportunity for President Sirisena and his SLFP and PM Wickremesinghe and his UNP to also realize that they will be better off politically if they (a) begin to think about a new framework of cooperation, and (b) jointly retrieve the 2015 reform agenda.

That requires a new dialogue, not open-war or confrontation, between the two main partners of the coalition government.