Sri Lanka’s first national unity government in trouble

Alliance woes: President Maithripala Sirisena told Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe that his Ministers were not willing to work with him. Picture shows them in Colombo on January 8, 2018.   | Photo Credit: AFP

Crisis gripped Sri Lanka’s first national unity government on Tuesday, with President Maithripala Sirisena and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe failing to reach consensus on the future of their coalition government, following the huge defeat their parties suffered in the recent local government elections.

Late on Tuesday evening, the leaders met at the President’s home — their third encounter after the poll results were released on Sunday — along with members of the Cabinet and some Ministers. They decided to set up a committee to chart out the next steps and “reform proposals” for their cohabitation government. The panel will come out with a report within three days, sources told The Hindu.

“The President said we should not drag this anymore. He was very keen we resolve this soon,” said Ranjan Ramanayake, a Deputy Minister, who was present at the meeting.

While the two parties tried reaching an agreement, Prime Minister Wickremesinghe on Tuesday came under pressure to resign, according to reliable sources. One of the early indications came on Sunday, when President Sirisena told Mr. Wickremesinghe that his Ministers were “not willing to work with him [the PM] any more,” The Hindu has learnt.

Historic election

Mr. Wickremesinghe’s United National Party (UNP) and the Sirisena-led faction of the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP), its traditional rival, have been in government together since 2015, after they jointly ousted former President Mahinda Rajapaksa in a historic election. The other faction of the SLFP supports Mr. Rajapaksa and sits in the Opposition.

In the February 10 local government polls, the partners in national government contested separately and lost to the newly formed party, Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP), or Sri Lanka People’s Front, backed by Mr. Rajapaksa. The SLPP won in 239 out of the 341 councils, pushing the UNP, which seemed a favourite during the campaign, to a distant second spot with 41 councils. Mr. Sirisena’s SLFP won just 10 councils.

While the growing differences in the uneasy coalition became evident during the campaign, the results have only deepened the fissures. “There is no way we will support this government as long as Mr. Wickremesinghe is Prime Minister,” said Dilan Perera, State Minister of Highways and a prominent SLFP member.

Referring to a bond scam at the Central Bank, in which a former governor appointed by the Prime Minister has been accused of causing losses worth billions to public institutions, Mr. Perera told The Hindu on Tuesday: “We lost this election because of the scam. If he [PM] is a true democrat, he should resign immediately.”

The President is said to have raised the issue at the late-night meeting as well, saying such a “drastic measure” was necessary to politically counter Mr. Rajapaksa, supported by a significant section of the Sinhala-Buddhist electorate, a top source told The Hindu.

However, there were no indications from the PM of stepping down. Some SLFP members reportedly approached the Speaker and senior UNP member Karu Jayasuriya, asking him to take over as PM.

“He [Mr. Jayasuriya] clearly told them that he would not do that unless PM Wickremesinghe asks him to,” a political source said.

Observing that there was no need for their leader to resign, that too on the insistence of SLFP which has just faced one of its worst election debacles, UNP members have accused the party of constraining it while in power, and being unreasonable post-elections.

Meanwhile, a section of the UNP sought to pressure its leader, Mr. Wickremesinghe, to break off the coalition, citing the party’s 106-member strength in Parliament, political sources said. The UNP, the senior partner in the ruling coalition, needs seven more MPs to reach the majority mark in the 225-member House.

Even as the coalition ​partners explore ways to reconfigure the national unity government, the Rajapaksa camp ​is said to have ​reached out to Mr. Sirisena Tuesday evening, offering “conditional support” in parliament, until “early ​[national] elections”.

“Or, they are welcome to sit with us in Opposition,” said Namal Rajapaksa, opposition lawmaker and son of the former President.  The SLFP is yet to respond to the offer.

Amid the political developments, Indian High Commissioner to Sri Lanka Taranjit Singh Sandhu met President Sirisena and PM Wickremesinghe in separate meetings. Informed sources said the meetings were “pre-arranged”, for discussion of bilateral issues “of mutual interest.”


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Printable version | Dec 3, 2020 11:28:38 PM |

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