Photo courtesy Al Jazeera

The outcome of last week’s failed no-confidence motion against Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe has established a few political ground realities. Firstly, it was a massive overreach by the Joint Opposition (JO), which failed to make the parliamentary vote even a relatively close one and in no uncertain terms took the gloss off their much better performance at the local government polls. It was in fact a point made by a JVP speaker in Parliament, who attributed the lackluster JO effort, to the division of opinion between the two rival sibling camps of Basil’s and Gotabaya’s within the Rajapaksa comeback project.

The Rajapaksa camp divided

The Joint Opposition’s failed no-confidence motion demonstrated a stark reality, which is that Mahinda Rajapaksa will never again be president of Sri Lanka. The 19th Amendment has term limits and that fact will never be changed. Even if the executive presidency is abolished, clauses that bar two term former presidents from being prime minister has already been mooted. Preventing Mahinda Rajapaksa from being number one has sufficient and adequate support within the political elite to ensure that he personally cannot hold the top-most office. That reality means that deciding whether brother number one or brother number two (no pun intended), becomes the standard bearer has created factions and is causing friction within the JO. While the friction is not yet a fracture it can get there and has the indications of getting worse. Further complicating matters is that defeated President Rajapaksa himself would prefer a more pliant standard bearer, totally dependent on him and with no independent national support base, both for his own clout post a future election and to keep the path clear for young Namal. Accordingly, a G.L. Peiris or even a Dinesh Gunawardena, whose personal pocket boroughs in the Moratuwa & Panadura areas for the former and Maharagama for the latter, is barely sufficient to elect them to Parliament and of no consequence nationally would be preferred over either brother. Both Basil and Gotabaya are independent minded and in the event of being elevated to high office, would certainly not be pliable in the hands of Mahinda. All these are a drag on the Rajapaksa comeback project.

The Rainbow Coalition holds together

The second political ground reality which the failed no confidence motion demonstrated is that essentially the anti-Rajapaksa coalition which coalesced to end Rajapaksa rule in 2015, still essentially holds true, though understandably to a slightly lesser extent than it did in 2015. In 2015, it was Rajapaksa verses the rest and the presidential election was essentially 52% to 48% against Rajapaksa. What the NCM of 2018 demonstrated was that Rajapaksa and the JO has not won over any new allies, no real new constituency, just some of those SLFPers who after the UPFA’s presidential election defeat deserted the sunk Mahinda ship for Maithri and are now once again flirting with the idea of switching back to Mahinda. Consequently, they are running with the hare and hunting with the hound. But in January 2015, the SLFP / UPFA was solidly backing Rajapaksa and he lost. Even if the twenty-six absent MPs voted for the no-confidence motion, the motion was defeated by a solid majority of one hundred and twenty-two against it, with no SLFP votes. It is still Rajapaksa verses the rest and it portents that the contours of such a coalition can hold and win in 2020. Further Ministers such as Duminda Dissanayake, Mahinda Amaraweera, Mahinda Samarasinghe and veteran AHM Fowzi are all adamantly opposed to the Rajapaksa comeback project.

The JVP which independently backed the candidature of Maithripala Sirisena in 2015, did support the NCM on the limited and clearly articulated grounds that the Government and hence the PM had failed to implement various aspects of the good governance mandate, a charge which even close political friends and allies of the good governance coalition, echo both in private and even in public. But it was scathing in its criticism of the former Rajapaksa regime. The Government parties as a whole have basically acknowledged that it was non-delivery of promised reforms and the absence of a good governance “dividend” which caused an erosion of support for the government at the past local government elections, rather than a particular nostalgia for a return to an authoritarian, near racist, and corrupt Rajapaksa rule.

The other interesting point is that the minority parties, representing the Muslim and Tamil communities solidly backed Prime Minister Wickremesinghe. As Opposition Leader Rajavarothian Sambanthan stated, the mandate of January 2015 and the unfinished tasks of that mandate require to be fulfilled and not destabilizing the government mid-term. The Rajapaksas’ are great believers that every MP has his price and especially vulnerable are members from the smaller minority parties. Despite near unlimited amounts of money available and on offer, there were no successful cross overs except from the SLFP group which has been divided post 2015 and only the contours of that division have changed. Somewhat towards Rajapaksa, but still less than the 2015 level, when it was essentially solidly behind him and he still lost.

A pledge on reconciliation and reforms

The other feature of the no-confidence motion was the occasion, especially by senior government front-benchers such as Minister Mangala Samaraweera for a reiteration of the government’s intent to advance the process of reforms and reconciliation. Processes which had considerably slowed down as the local elections approached and other political considerations took a toll on implementing the mandate. Noteworthy was the challenge from the government’s constituent partners that supporting the government in return for advancing the interests of their constituencies was somehow either anti-national or at least anti-Sinhala. It is an insidious and near fascist political philosophy which argues that the views of a majority of the majority community, which may for its tribal and parochial reasons be less than a majority in the country as a whole, somehow has precedent over the numerical majority, just because that majority includes minorities.  The reality is that now post war, ethnic minority political parties are coalition building on issues and advancing their goals through a process of democratic engagement. The issues so advanced are those which seek to make Sri Lanka to be more inclusive, pluralistic and accommodative of diversity. The Rajapaksa / JO vision is a Sinhala ‘Eelam’, where Sri Lanka is a mono as opposed to a majority ethno-religious Sinhala Buddhist entity, with all other people groups as honored guests but not equal partners. Fortunately, that is a thesis as yet rejected by a majority of Sri Lankans.

Editor’s Note: Also read ‘The Fall of the No-Confidence Motion Against the Prime Minister’ and ‘Beyond No Confidence Motion, Is Sanity Possible?’