Sirisena faces dilemma
Fire and fury at Monday’s talks with UNF leaders; compromise plans end in stalemate On Wednesday, UNF will move new motion, expressing confidence in Ranil as PM, but Sirisena says no, never All sides get ready and pledge to respect court rulings, but un
It was easily the most exasperating week for President Maithripala Sirisena after he triggered Sri Lanka’s worst political crisis. Six weeks into the imbroglio, his efforts to talk things over and settle the exacerbating issues, ahead of a Supreme Court ruling challenging the dissolution of Parliament, ended in disaster. It was only last week the Sunday Times (political commentary) revealed how Sirisena sought a “ceasefire” and a “negotiated settlement.” This was to become the finale to issues that erupted after ousting Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe, installing Mahinda Rajapaksa in that office, swearing in a new Cabinet, proroguing and later dissolving Parliament. A deal was so near and so close. It became too far after Sirisena lost the plot.
It all began on Monday night when talks got under way with a delegation of the United National Front (UNF), where the predominant player is the United National Party (UNP), a day later than planned. On Sunday night, Sirisena chaired a meeting of partner leaders of the government and the current political situation was discussed. Basil Rajapaksa, who represented the Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP) told the meeting that a further discussion would be necessary to determine what their plans would be in keeping with the Supreme Court ruling.
UNP Deputy Leader Sajith Premadasa, led the delegation. It was decided earlier that he should be the head of the team and the spokesperson. Others were Kabir Hashim, Akila Viraj Kariyawasam, Ravi Karunanayake, Malik Samarawickrema, Patali Champika Ranawaka, Ravi Karunanayake, Rauff Hakeem and Mano Ganesan.
Premadasa began with an appeal. He said that the UNF should be allowed to form a government with Ranil Wickremesinghe as Prime Minister. “If there is no majority in Parliament, we will resign,” he declared. President Sirisena started on a cordial note. He said he was keen to resolve issues before the impending ruling by the Supreme Court (SC) and the ruling from the Court of Appeal (CA). He also said that the issues should be settled by the Executive and the Legislature without the involvement of the judiciary. He would even consider withdrawing the Gazette notification dissolving Parliament. He later changed his mind on this move.
From Tuesday, for four days in succession the SC has been hearing counsel arguing for and against the dissolution of Parliament. The SC sat till late hours of Friday and extended its stay order on the dissolution of Parliament from yesterday until December 10. However, Chief Justice Nalin Perera announced on Friday that the interim order would prevail until the ruling was delivered. That meant it could be anytime next week or thereafter. The court vacation is due to begin on December 14. Police Chief Pujith Jayasundera has drawn about 2,500 personnel from police stations countrywide for special duty in Colombo. They have been deployed in Courts, the Prime Ministers’ Office and other key installations.
The CA has issued a quo warranto on Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa and his Cabinet. This is a writ asking them to show by what authority they are holding office. An interim order restrains Rajapaksa from functioning as Prime Minister and/or Minister of the Cabinet of Ministers until the final hearing and determination is issued. A similar order was also issued on Cabinet Ministers, Deputy Ministers and Ministers of State. The CA was of the view that “an irreparable or irremediable damage” would be caused by not restraining them from functioning in their respective public offices. This has led to no functioning government in Sri Lanka.
Sirisena lamented that Mata asaadarana yak vuna or there was injustice done to me. He was strongly critical of his former Premier Ranil Wickremesinghe. The tone was sombre as Sirisena said if Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa cannot command the majority in Parliament, he was ready to call upon the UNF to form a government. However, it would have to be without Ranil Wickremesinghe as the Prime Minister. He claimed that would be advantageous particularly to the UNP. It will obviate criticism over the Central Bank bond scandal where their leaders were involved. He raised his right hand from the table and moved it upwards slowly to demonstrate “mehema naginawa” or the UNP’s popularity will go up like this.
He urged the UNF delegation “not to take this as a threat” and declared “I will not contest the next Presidential election. I will go to Polonnaruwa. You all will then praise me.” He observed that a motion was due for discussion in Parliament on Wednesday (December 5). It was against Premier Rajapaksa. He disclosed that he had told Speaker Karu Jayasuriya during his meeting last week that he would act on the outcome of the motion. Its adoption was a certainty for the UNF with its own 103 votes and 14 from the Tamil National Alliance. That was not to be for reasons explained later.
“You can come with the outcome of the motion on Wednesday itself. I will swear in a new Prime Minister. However, don’t bring Ranil Wickremesinghe,” he declared. He would rather resign than appoint him, the President said. The President extended his ban on Wickremesinghe to others also, when he said he would not appoint a PM from his (Wickremesinghe’s) “clique.” However, he did not name them. Lakshaman Kiriela, a former Minister and Leader of the House, was unhappy at the remarks. “You can only swear in a new Prime Minister. You cannot choose who that should be. That is a decision of the majority members in the House,” retorted Kiriella. President Sirisena flew into a rage. “Now, you are trying to threaten me,” he shouted at Kiriella.
UNP Chairman Kabir Hashim intervened on an earlier occasion to say that the UNF delegation had come to discuss “serious matters” and noted that there was no government in the country now. Somewhat agitated, Sirisena replied “Now I have full power. I am the government.” He said he would take decisions after consulting his legal advisers.
Former Minister and All Ceylon Makkal Congress (ACMC) leader Rishad Bathiuddin raised issue over the CA stay order on the Premier, the Cabinet, Deputy Ministers and Ministers of State. Sirisena replied that he had not yet read the judgment. Bathiuddin was to point out that Rajapaksa had not only read it but was even preparing his appeal to the Supreme Court. Bathiuddin said he was present at the Court of Appeal when the interim order was delivered. He had talked to senior lawyers. They had asked him who the President’s legal advisers were and questioned whether they were not misleading him.
He then went on to relate his experience at the Court of Appeal. A senior lawyer, Bathiuddin said, had told him that the President was liable for violating the Constitution. If he now enjoyed immunity, even when he becomes a private citizen he would be responsible for allegedly violating the Constitution. That was a criminal offence and one could go to jail, the lawyers had told him. The remarks infuriated President Sirisena. “Are you trying to put me in jail,” he exhorted loudly. He could not hide his anger. Bathiuddin declared, “Sir, please do not get me wrong. It is not I who said this. It was a senior lawyer who told me.” Shot back Sirisena “I am not at all afraid to go to jail.”
Jathika Hela Urumaya (JHU) leader Patali Champika Ranawaka intervened to say “you are talking like this now. How much have we and the people suffered. We brought you to power. You threw us out.” It is at this stage that Kiriella told Hashim “there is no point in waiting. Let us get out.” Hashim told Sirisena “thank you very much” and the UNF delegation withdrew.
If President Sirisena wanted to de-escalate tensions with his feuding former coalition partner, it had the opposite effect with the UNF. His anger and fury prompted the UNF delegation’s withdrawal. However, a source close to the President accused the UNF delegation of “provoking” Sirisena. This is why they continued to insist that Ranil Wickremesighe should be the Prime Minister, the source said. On Wednesday, Sirisena telephoned Speaker Karu Jayasuriya to ask “Api deng mokkada
karanney” or what do we do now. The way out, the Speaker replied, was to restore the government that existed before October 26 in office with Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe. He said that would ensure normalcy and halt further damage to the economy.
The Maithri-Karu telephone call that Wednesday was after it became known that the Vote of No confidence on Premier Rajapaksa, for which Sirisena had extended his tacit support to fast track an end to the political crisis, did not materialise. The motion signed by seven UNP parliamentarians, as revealed last week, was titled “Further action to be taken in terms of Article 48 (2) of the Constitution.” It referred to the two previous No Confidence Motions against Prime Minister Rajapaksa. These were adopted in Parliament. The new motion called upon the President to act in terms of Article 48 (2) of the Constitution.
There was a serious error in these columns over Article 48 (2). What was published last week inadvertently was Article 48 (2) of the old Constitution and NOT from the 19th Amendment. The error, which is unintentional, is regretted.
This was nevertheless grist to the mill for a club of handful who are not fans of the Sunday Times. Their bastion was the Twitter and they gave vent to their different conspiracy theories and loaded opinions to fit their agendas. It is a firm resolve of the Sunday Times to always correct whenever errors occur and this occasion is no different.
The Article 48 (2) of the 19th Amendment to the Constitution reads as follows:
"If Parliament rejects the Statement of Government Policy or the Appropriation Bill or passes a vote of no-confidence in the Government, the Cabinet of Ministers shall stand dissolved, and the President shall, unless he has in the exercise of his powers under Article 70, dissolved Parliament, appoint a Prime Minister, Ministers of the Cabinet of Ministers, Ministers who are not members of the Cabinet of Ministers and Deputy Ministers in terms of Articles 42, 43, 44 and 45."
The change of course for the UNF (albeit the UNP) came after details of the breakdown of Monday night’s talks resonated in Temple Trees. Ousted Premier Ranil Wickremesinghe was briefed in detail. Adding to that in no small measure were remarks President Sirisena made at the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) sessions at the Sugathadasa Indoor Stadium. He devoted most parts of his speech to criticise Wickremesinghe. The speech was shown live by some television networks and widely reported in the media the next day, Wednesday. On the other hand, Sirisena loyalists contended that he had to go “on the warpath” because of the behaviour of some members of the UNF delegation. They claimed that their conduct during the meeting with Sirisena was confrontational.
Ousted Premier Wickremesinghe asked parliamentarian Mayantha Dissanayake, one of the signatories to the motion, to announce in Parliament that they would not go ahead with it. As one senior UNPer put it, “we do not want to give Sirisena a face saving exit. We want to show the country that he has been making one blunder after another.” Another opined that the passage of the motion would have prioritised issues relating to a new Prime Minister.
In fact, Wickremesinghe did face some pressure from members of his own Parliamentary group on Monday. In a rather unusual speech, Sajith Premadasa described himself as the “Paapisi niyojya
naayakaya” or a carpet deputy leader. He said disunity in the UNF was not being caused from outside but came from within. Some of the UNP policies affected the common people. Farmers were not looked after. Vouchers for school uniforms had become a joke. He said he could handle development work and “we will insist you are the Premier” he told Wickremesinghe. Premadasa later told colleagues he would always raise issues concerning the party from within and not from outside.
Sri Lanka Muslim Congress (SLMC) leader Rauff Hakeem also sought a change in leadership if they were to win elections. Otherwise, he cautioned, he might not even contest. There have been proposals to elect a leader through a secret ballot. At least on three different occasions, some UNP seniors had met at different houses and the subject had been the change of leadership. However, UNP Chairman Kabir Hashim said these meetings were to “ensure that the party remains intact. President Sirisena’s strategy is to break the UNP. So senior members want to ensure nothing like that happens.”
In a new course of action, the UNP will move in Parliament on December 12 a vote of confidence on Wickremesinghe. Thus, the party is setting the stage for Wickremesinghe to make his claims for Premiership with majority support in Parliament and not through a no-confidence vote on Rajapaksa as Sirisena envisaged. Here is the list of signatories and the one line motion:
ADDENDUM TO THE ORDER BOOK No. 1 OF PARLIAMENT
Issued on Tuesday, December 04, 2018 No. 1 (3).]
NOTICE OF MOTIONS FOR WHICH NO DATES HAVE BEEN FIXED
Hon. Sajith Premadasa
Hon. Ravi Karunanayake
Hon. Akila Viraj Kariyawasam Hon. Lakshman Kiriella
Hon. (Dr.) Rajitha Senaratne
Hon. Palany Thigambaram
Hon. Mangala Samaraweera
Hon. Rishad Bathiudeen,—
Vote of Confidence,—
That this House resolves that;
Hon. Ranil Wickremesinghe, Member of Parliament commands the confidence of
Parliament to function as the Prime Minister.
This motion, sure to be adopted next Wednesday will see the creation of a new deadlock. President Sirisena now insists that even if the 225 MPs request, he will not appoint Wickremesinghe as Premier. He told the UNF delegation that he would not even consider the Wickremesinghe “clique.” By next week, a recognised majority in Parliament would resolve that they want Wickremesinghe. In the stalemate that is now in the making, will President Sirisena carry out his threat to resign? Or will he, like in the case of the other controversies he created, ignore and carry on.
On top of that, the UNF will also challenge Wickremesinghe’s removal, the installation of Mahinda Rajapaksa as Premier and the prorogation of Parliament through gazette notifications. For this purpose the Ven. Dambare Amila Thera and Roshan Herath have moved the Supreme Court. Their case is due to come up on December 12.
Needless to say, the task of a neutral country diplomat, who is playing the role of an interlocutor, turned difficult this week. His latest initiative, in the light of the impending court rulings, is to discuss with stakeholders scenarios “A” and “B.” One involves the possibilities if rulings are in favour of the government whilst the other is if they are not. He held a fresh round of shuttle diplomacy this week.
In a related development, President Sirisena, who chaired the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) central committee meeting at his Mahagamsekera Mawatha official residence on Friday night also spoke of his responses to impending court rulings. If, for example, the Supreme Court held that the dissolution is in accordance with the Constitution, there was no issue. He would plan for parliamentary elections. He said one of the key issues to be taken up would be an electoral alliance with the Sri
Lanka Podujana Party (SLPP). He said he wished to have an alliance and a common symbol. This appears to be a paradoxical situation.
After ensconcing Mahinda Rajapaksa as Prime Minister, Sirisena did engage in a dialogue with the SLPP for the formation of a common front. It led to the two sides agreeing on a name and to talk further about a symbol. However, behind-thescenes, some of his own SLFP parliamentarians mounted pressure on him that their party would be swallowed up by the SLPP. Some also said they could not work with Premier Rajapaksa. In the day-to-day events that followed, this saw the two sides distancing from each other. The SLPP strategist and ideologue Basil Rajapaksa continued with the formation of more SLPP branches and trade union organisations. He even contradicted S.B. Dissanayake, the broker who bungled the Sirisena-Rajapaksa tie-up, by saying there had been no firm decision for a common front. This is notwithstanding the dialogue.
Why then is President Sirisena now trying to lean on the SLPP for an alliance after distancing himself? More so when he has met selected SLFP parliamentarians in behind-the-scenes meetings where they voiced concerns over working with Premier Rajapaksa and his ministerial colleagues? Is he trying to create a foundation to build on an alliance that will make him the presidential candidate? At the 2015 presidential election, he won with the UNP vote to become President. Is he banking on the SLPP vote this time? This is notwithstanding his assertions that he would not contest again. The irony in this situation is that there has been no consistency in Sirisena’s approach, blowing hot one day and cold on another. This has in fact caused a considerable degree of consternation among SLFP parliamentarians. “Where do we stand,” lamented one of them who did not wish to be identified.
On the other hand, the billion dollar question is whether the SLPP would be in a mood to go along with President Sirisena’s latest call for an alliance if the SC rules in his favour. Firstly, the SLPP leadership has been unhappy that Sirisena did not “sufficiently” support Premier Rajapaksa during the current political crisis. “Premier Rajapaksa is hanging on due to his own tenacity,” said a source close to him. The second is because the SLPP leadership believes that Sirisena tried to ‘short circuit’ them in trying to push a motion against Premier Rajapaksa on December 5. This, however, did not materialise due to UNF’s decision not to go ahead. Thus, President Sirisena has raised some credibility issues about him, particularly with shifting positions, for which the SLPP will demand firm, perhaps written commitments for any political arrangement. Yet, both sides have not broken relations and the glue of their opposition to the UNF is keeping them attached.
In the event the SC holds that the President has violated the Constitution by dissolving Parliament, President Sirisena declared that he would consult the Central Committee on the steps to be taken. He then made a surprise announcement that shocked SLFP electoral organisers countrywide. All of them would cease to hold office from Friday night, he announced, saying he would himself appoint new members with the help of a Committee.
Those who have been working hard would be re-nominated whilst those who have remained ineffective would be dropped. He said the SLFP would also have district and electoral managers in accordance with the recent restructuring. The purpose of this exercise is to strengthen the SLFP just in case an alliance is formed. However, since the February 10 local elections showed only a 13 percent voted for the SLFP, creating a formidable force in a short time is a day dream. The party does not have the human resources to do and it is also badly handicapped by the lack of qualified senior leaders to undertake the task. These are some of the main causes for the erosion from the SLFP ranks to the SLPP. The SLFP’s former General Secretary, Duminda Dissanayake, came in for severe criticism over this.
Thus, President Sirisena has been pole vaulting from one political issue to another. Unlike lights at traffic intersections, the red turns to amber when he does this, but never reaches green. That heaps more and more political issues on a nation now reeling with uncertainty and with no functioning government. One sector badly hit is the tourism sector. And that too, during the current peak season forcing hoteliers to offer cut rates to save their industry from ruination. They showed their protest this week by boycotting an awards ceremony at the Shangri La hotel where President Sirisena was the chief guest. Yet, some of his close aides argue differently. They say trains and buses are running, banks are open for business, vehicles move on roads. “Nothing has gone wrong,” said one of them. Not surprising. They are so blinded by the realities in a situation which has never occurred since independence.
“The best way out would be parliamentary elections,” Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa told the Sunday Times. Of course, now, we await the ruling of the Supreme Court, he said. Rajapaksa said he would bow to whatever decision the Supreme Court would make. I do not want to comment anymore, he added.
“Sri Lankans and those around the world are aware that we are in a dangerous situation. President Sirisena says he will not appoint Ranil Wickremesinghe as Prime Minister even if the entire Parliament wants him. What happens if he wins the parliamentary elections with a large majority? He would do the same,” declared UNP Chairman Kabir Hashim. He said it was an “absolute disappointment for us that President Sirisena did not discuss matters based on issues or principles. He was only talking about his personal feelings.
He said if the President did not appoint Ranil Wickremesinghe, nothing would work. “This is a gross violation of the Constitution and tantamounts to a treasonable offence,” Hashim said. He defended the Tamil National Alliance (TNA) support for Wickremesinghe saying “they are standing up for our democracy.” He said claims of a “deal” were “absolutely false” and they are “standing on a principle. Of course, we have still not delivered their demands for development and provide employment to youth. Nor have we developed road networks, he pointed out.
A source close to the President, however, argued that Sirisena had abided by the Constitution when he took the different measures. “Therefore, claims of it being treasonable are false and absurd,” he said.
The events this week show that President Sirisena has painted himself to a corner, to an intractable position. For good or for bad, some of the ills will resolve when the Court of Appeal and the Supreme Court give their rulings. Yet, one supreme question on which the future governance of Sri Lanka now hinges, the appointment of a new Prime Minister, remains. Who will come and who will go is the biggest question as Sri Lanka enters the seventh week of political turmoil.
With the Supreme Court and the Court of Appeal taking up cases that could change the course for Sri Lanka’s history, tight security has been imposed around the Court Complex.Pic by Lahiru Harshana