Alliances in the making

In what is an election year, the political ‘shadowboxing’ between the Executive and the Legislature continues with President Maithripala Sirisena and the ruling United National Party (UNP) having differences of opinion on key political issues.

This manifested more recently when the UNP presented a motion in Parliament calling for the formation of a national government. The move came in for public criticism by President Sirisena who used his Independence Day address to the nation to question how ethical the move was, if it was intended solely for the purpose of increasing the number of Cabinet ministers.

Although the UNP was initially to expedite the passage of the motion through Parliament, paving the way for a national government, it appears to have had second thoughts. Some of its own parliamentarians have cautioned the party leadership against the move. With less than ten months for a presidential election, it would invite the anger of the general public, they have argued.

At least for the time being, the issue appears to have been confined to the back burner. Nevertheless, Leader of the House and Minister Lakshman Kiriella, who presented the motion in Parliament has stated that a national government will indeed be in office “before March”.

“We have no doubt that we can pass the motion with ease with the support of the nine Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) members who have already pledged their support. I expect to move the motion in Parliament on February 20,” Kiriella has said.

National government

Kiriella dismisses criticism of the move saying that speculation that the national government would be formed with the only parliamentarian elected from the Sri Lanka Muslim Congress (SLMC) Ali Zahir Moulana is unfounded. Some parliamentarians from the SLFP and “several members from other parties” would also join the proposed national government, he says.

However, mixed messages coming from the UNP camp indicate that the party was now having reservations on the matter. Earlier this week, Minister Daya Gamage stated that the UNP did not wish to confront President Sirisena over this issue. Gamage was hopeful that the President would eventually agree to the move.

Another issue which President Sirisena and the UNP are having differences of opinion are the conducting of Provincial Council elections. The President proposed to the Cabinet that the elections be expedited and be held by May. Cabinet has accepted this proposal in principle.

Although the Cabinet may have agreed to the President’s proposal to hold polls by May, Provincial Councils Minister Vajira Abeywardana has pointed out that this would be almost impossible because Parliament has already approved changes to legislation which would have to be reversed before polls are held.

“Elections to provincial councils either under the new electoral system or a mixed system is impossible because one of the main conditions in the new electoral system, the delimitation of the councils, was rejected by Parliament,” Abeywardana explained. Elections are possible only if new legislation is adopted by Parliament by a two-thirds in the majority in Parliament, he said.

Presidential candidate

It is no secret that the UNP is not very keen to conduct Provincial Council polls. That is because it fared poorly at the Local Government elections held one year ago, in February 2018. That outcome, if repeated now, could have a detrimental impact on the party as it prepares for presidential elections.

The President’s own SLFP came a distant third at the last Local Government elections. However, he is now keen for the polls to be held because he sees in them an opportunity to forge an electoral alliance with the Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP). That has the potential of securing for him a ‘common’ candidacy at the presidential election, as the nominee of an SLFP-SLPP alliance.

The SLPP is not that keen about this prospect. While it strongly believes that it would have an advantage over the SLFP and the UNP if any elections are conducted now, it is not very enthusiastic about a partnership with the SLFP.

Its National Organiser and political strategist Basil Rajapaksa said as much this week when he told Gampaha district SLPP local government members that the party will not campaign or back a presidential candidate who is not a member of the party.

“As a party which gives the foremost place to party members at the grassroots level, the SLPP is not ready to steer a campaign for someone who is not accepted by the grassroots level. The party leadership will never force members to vote for such a candidate. Without any doubt, the next President will be an SLPP candidate,” Rajapaksa said in what could be interpreted as a thinly veiled reference to the possibility of President Sirisena running as a ‘common’ candidate.

As far as the SLPP is concerned, it is now clear that the other Rajapaksa sibling, former Defence Secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa is positioning himself as the frontrunner for the party’s candidacy. If however, he had hoped for a reprieve in the case in which he is indicted with misappropriation of Rs. 49 million to construct the D. A. Rajapaksa Museum, that was not to be.

Rajapaksa’s lawyers had argued before the Special High Court that it did not have jurisdiction to hear the case under the Judicature (Amendment) Act. Those objections were overruled this week. The case will now be heard, commencing on February 22.

President Sirisena’s opinions about the Constitutional Council also attracted a sharp response from Speaker Karu Jayasuriya. This was in response to the President’s remarks that the Council has rejected the names of twelve judges proposed for the higher courts and that it does not consider the seniority of the judges in making appointments.

Speaker Jayasuriya took strong exception to these comments. “We never informed the President that we don’t consider seniority but we did tell him that we consider other aspects as well other than the seniority. Therefore, the statement made by the President was wrong,” Speaker Jayasuriya said, making a special statement in Parliament.

Constitutional Council

“A Constitutional Council is not needed if the only seniority is considered when appointments are made,” Speaker Jayasuriya explained in his statement. “Our belief is that we have performed this duty well. Members of the Constitutional Council are allowed to voice their opinions. No political party had a majority in the Constitutional Council. It does not come under any influence in such circumstances at any time,” he said, noting that all decisions taken by the Council were collective decisions. The Speaker also tabled the criteria used by the Council in making appointments.

It will be recalled that Speaker Jayasuriya won many plaudits for his handling of the constitutional crisis late last year for his principled and impartial stance and also for braving the insults, innuendos and physical threats made against him in the Chamber of Parliament at the height of that crisis. He also managed to maintain a cordial dialogue with President Sirisena during that time.

It is clear that President Sirisena, the UNP and its ministers and the SLPP are all pulling in different directions, albeit with an eye on the presidential elections which will most likely be held in November or December this year. More political posturing and strategising will be the order of the day as the deadline for elections loom- even before campaigning begins in earnest.

 



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