The emerging crisis of cohabitation

Maithripala MahindaA strange revelation was made this week, after President Maithripala Sirisena appointed four new Deputy Ministers in his continued efforts to consolidate power within the Sri Lanka Freedom Party.

SLFP MPs Sanath Jayasuriya, Thilanga Sumathipala, Wijaya Dahanayake and Eric Weerawardana were sworn in as Deputy Ministers by President Sirisena last Wednesday, two days ahead of a massive rally in Matara calling for former President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s return as Prime Minister.

DharishaThe new additions raise the SLFP tally of portfolio holders in the Sirisena Administration to 36, against the UNP’s 35. Nine other Ministers and Deputy Ministers hail from other political parties in the ‘rainbow’ coalition that ushered President Sirisena to power in January. President Sirisena, who expressly pledged to limit his Cabinet to 25 members in his election manifesto, now presides over a whopping 80 Cabinet Ministers, State Ministers and Deputy Ministers, batting not too far below the average of his predecessor.

In a topsy-turvy political twist, it now transpires that the President has drawn his biggest ministerial cadre from the party which strove hardest to defeat him in the January election. Put another away, the party leading the Opposition in Parliament now commands the most number of ministerial portfolios in the ruling Government.
In the past week, the SLFP has managed to assume a majority in the Sirisena administration and set the legislative agenda on electoral reform. The President’s proposal for the 20th Amendment to the Constitution which replaces the current electoral system based on district Proportional Representation (PR) with a purported hybrid between First-Past-the-Post and PR systems, recommends the increase of Parliamentarians to 237, after the SLFP insisted on more MPs to be elected on the First-Past-the-Post system.

Despite UNP misgivings and opposition, and crying foul by minor parties, including the Sri Lanka Muslim Congress, it is this version of the draft amendment that was gazetted yesterday by the Government Printer. The SLFP-led UPFA has the numbers in Parliament to pass this amendment independent of UNP or minor party support.

For all official purposes, the SLFP continues to function as the country’s official Opposition. Flexing its Parliamentary muscle, the party is threatening the UNP minority Government with two no-confidence motions – one against the Prime Minister and the other challenging Finance Minister Ravi Karunanayake. With the UNP Prime Minister out of the picture, the SLFP is confident equilibrium will be restored, and the former ruling party will be back in the governing seat again. The UNP decision to oppose 20A in its current form has strengthened the SLFP’s hand.
The SLFP will now offer its full legislative support to President Sirisena to enact the electoral reform package, while the UNP looks likely to side with the smaller parties, and possibly the TNA, in opposing the amendment in its present form. Any amendments brought to 20A by the UNP or minor parties when the bill goes into Committee Stage can be defeated on the floor by the SLFP-led UPFA with a simple majority.

No more than 225: UNP

The UNP is confident that increasing the number of elected representatives in Parliament will not find favour with the public. So when a senior UNP delegation met President Sirisena at the Presidential Secretariat on Monday, they recommended that the matter of 237 Parliamentary seats be put before the people at a referendum.

UNP office bearers Karu Jayasuriya, Kabir Hashim, Ravi Karunanayake and former Party Chairman Malik Samarawickrema met with the President on Monday to communicate to him the decisions taken at the party’s Working Committee meeting last Friday.  The delegation suggested that instead of a Cabinet paper, a white paper should be presented to the people to decide on the proposal to increase the number of MPs in Parliament. The white paper will serve to inform voters about the reasons for an increase Parliamentary representation to 237, the UNP believes.

The Party feels its position will have judicial backing, since a Supreme Court bench led by former Chief Justice Neville Samarakone in 1981 held that any changes to the Constitution of the Sri Lankan Parliament would require both a two-thirds majority in Parliament and a referendum since the amendment affected the people’s franchise. The determination prevented former President J.R. Jayewardene from enacting an amendment to the Constitution, creating a two seat allocation for the Kalawana electorate by means of a two-thirds majority alone through a Parliament in which his party held a five-sixths majority.

According to Deputy Minister and UNP Legislator Eran Wickramaratne, the UNP will not allow the number of MPs to be increased even by one. “We cannot change the rules of the game when we have been elected under a certain set of rules,” Wickramaratne told the Daily FT. The Lawmaker explained that increasing the number of Parliamentary seats created a serious problem of proportionality.

“If this is our attitude, that we need more and more Parliamentarians, then India which has one billion people and 50 times Sri Lanka’s population will have to have 10,000 MPs to provide adequate representation,” Wickramaratne argued. He said that increased representation in Parliament also made provincial councils and local government redundant, since these units were already offering representation at different regional levels.

Tamil National Alliance Legislator M.A. Sumanthiran agreed with this perspective during a lecture on the 20th Amendment at the Colombo University on Tuesday, saying his party believed that representation needed to be increased at local and provincial levels in order to de-centralise power. Conversely, increasing representation in Parliament served to concentrate power in the Centre even further, something his party, the TNA, strongly opposed since they were advocating a federal system for Sri Lanka, Sumanthiran argued.

Early dissolution 

The UNP delegation also informed the President on Monday that the party strongly favoured early dissolution of Parliament to make way for a Legislature that better reflects the mandate of the people following the 8 January election.
The third issue to be taken up at Monday’s meeting were the two no-confidence motions brought against Premier Wickremesinghe and Finance Minister Karunanayake. The UNP delegation argued that the no-confidence motions were an affront to the Sirisena Government and were highly unethical in light of SLFP members also holding positions within the administration.

President Sirisena is reported to have repeated his remarks at the Cabinet meeting last week to the UNP stalwarts, informing them that he would not allow the no-faith motions to proceed under any circumstances. In this the President appears to be considering a variety of legal options available to him, including the prorogation of Parliament, which would allow motions on the Order Paper to lapse if he continues to favour delaying the general election.

The UNP stand against the 20A in its present form and the party’s decision to stand against President Sirisena’s proposal for electoral reform has breathed new life into the SLFP. On Tuesday, the party’s MPs, Provincial Councillors and Pradeshiya Sabha members met at the Sri Lanka Foundation Institute for discussions with President Sirisena. SLFP MPs were euphoric after the meeting, because they claimed President Sirisena had decided to appoint a six-member SLFP committee to foster unity within the party – a decision they interpreted to mean the incumbent was seeking to build bridges with his predecessor, Mahinda Rajapaksa.

Convinced that a divided SLFP will lose badly to the UNP if President Sirisena decides to call elections within the next few months, party members are engaged in a desperate bid to unite the two warring factions and make the blues a formidable force in the coming election. SLFP Spokesman Dilan Perera, who quit the Sirisena Cabinet earlier this month, said the party was hoping to form a government before the Parliamentary elections, technically scheduled for April next year.

The JHU calculation 

The Jathika Hela Urumaya (JHU), a small but significant constituent member of the alliance that supported President Sirisena’s candidacy for the January poll, has reinforced these SLFP hopes, calling on the President to appoint a new government to see 20A through if the UNP was refusing to cooperate.

JHU strongmen Athuraliye Rathana and Champika Ranawaka may be making a strategic calculation in issuing this call, political analysts point out. As a party with a miniscule electoral base, the JHU will have to forge an alliance with one of the two main parties to contest the Parliamentary poll. Ideologically, the UNP falls too far from the JHU ideal as a coalition ally. The SLFP is the nationalist party’s best hope. Bolstering the SLFP’s election chances could therefore indirectly benefit the JHU’s own polls bid.

Interestingly, the JHU is one of the only minor parties to support the 20A in its current form, even though it will be badly affected by the reforms, which will almost certainly strengthen only the SLFP, the UNP and the TNA in the Northern Province. The reasons for this could be twofold.

On the one hand, the JHU, unlike many other smaller parties, knows it can only win seats in Parliament if it contests in a political alliance featuring one of the main political parties. Unlike the JVP or the CWC, since 2004 the JHU has commanded too small a percentage of the vote to hope to win any Parliamentary seats contesting as an independent group.

Secondly, from an ideological perspective, the JHU would rejoice in the prospect of cementing major (Sinhala) party dominance in the country’s south and Tamil National Alliance dominance in the north. Critics of 20A express serious concerns that the new system will definitively polarise Sri Lankan politics along ethnic lines, stirring communal tensions and encouraging divisive political discourse. But this is a scenario the JHU knows its brand of politics will thrive in, so it will strongly back 20A – even though it may well be sealing its own political fate if it finds it can no longer ally with the SLFP for some reason one day in the future.

Pre-8 January status quo?

The delicate balance between the minority Government and the presidency held by Maithripala Sirisena therefore looks poised to shift. Ironically, should matters develop as indicated this week, the pre-8 January status quo will be restored, with the UNP backed into a corner with the minor parties in Parliament against the 20A in its present form and the SLFP-JHU-UPFA banding together to enact the President’s electoral reform law.

If it plays out, the shifting power balance would indicate that the anti-Rajapaksa camp led by the UNP and strongly backed by other parties in Opposition, including the TNA and the JVP, made a grievous miscalculation ahead of the 8 January poll. Opposition strategists assumed that the SLFP-led UPFA, so disgruntled and frustrated with Rajapaksa leadership themselves, would fall in line with President Sirisena’s reform agenda. The common Opposition never fully realised the dangers to the Sirisena presidency and a supportive UNP Government from a strongly pro-Rajapaksa Parliament that held a massive majority in the House.

The assumption made by the common Opposition was that the SLFP, that had been so meek and mild under Rajapaksa leadership, would fall in line under a Sirisena presidency. Legislative blockades by the SLFP were never considered, and the UNP made the calculation that any such obstacles could be overcome by a President beholden to the Greens, who held the power to dissolve Parliament at a whim.

Had these Opposition strategists calculated the dangers of this road, they may have pushed for swift Parliamentary elections, while anti-Rajapaksa sentiment and euphoria at their overthrow were at its zenith. Immediate Parliamentary elections, with the promise of Constitutional reform at the conclusion of the poll, would have enabled the Sirisena led coalition to eradicate the Rajapaksa threat almost entirely, with a 1-2 punch that could have taken the former President and his ex-ruling cabal much longer to recover from.

Time of reckoning

Today, with the gloss fading from their January victory, both President Sirisena and the UNP have major decisions to make. Both President and his minority Government face almost impossible choices. The UNP must decide if it will continue to be a lame-duck minority Government, bulldozed and threatened by the SLFP at every turn, increasingly unpopular for its failure to deliver within its 100 days and beyond on a host of election pledges, including economic relief and good governance.

Some UNP seniors claim the party has drawn an imaginary line in the sand, a deadline as it were for dissolution. Without dissolution at the end of June, the UNP realises it will face two no-faith motions it has no hope of defeating and acute embarrassment for its Party Leader who can only avoid the humiliation of being ousted if President Sirisena ‘bails’ him out with prorogation or by forcing the SLFP to withdraw the motion.

On the other hand, a resignation of the UNP Government is equally unpalatable for the party. Stepping down from the Government creates the very real risk that President Sirisena could form a SLFP Government and govern with the group until as late as April next year. By that time, all memory of the UNP’s contribution towards the ouster of the Rajapaksa regime will have faded and the party will be relegated once more to face the polls as an Opposition party.  The UNP leadership may decide that making a pretence of being in Government could be preferable to wasting away in Opposition once again, this time under a presidency the party had actively ushered into office.

President Sirisena faces serious moral questions of his own. The UNP is pushing him into an election his own supporters within the SLFP do not want, political analysts point out. These SLFPers, many of them Ministers, fear an election could lead to a return of Mahinda Rajapaksa when the party performs poorly at the polls. Recent UNP history provides ample evidence that election defeats lead to serious leadership struggles within political parties that adversely impact their electoral fortunes in a vicious cycle that can take decades to reverse. Analysts argue that pro-Sirisena factions of the SLFP fear the party will blame the President for playing into the UNP’s hands and push for the return of the ex-President as party leader.

Minister Rajitha Senaratne for instance, who is President Sirisena’s closest confidant in the Government, is strongly opposed to quick elections, expressing an opinion privately that Parliamentary elections could even be held after September 2015. On the other hand, President Sirisena has what some would call a moral obligation to the UNP and his corresponding election pledges to dissolve Parliament and effect meaningful Constitutional reform. Constitutionally, nothing prevents President Sirisena from neatly extricating himself from the alliance with the UNP and forming a SLFP Government to govern until April 2016. Arguably, the move would also restore political stability since the SLFP-led UPFA also holds a strong majority in the House.

For a President who spends most of his time fighting fires between his own party and the party he has chosen to govern with, the move could also result in fewer headaches, as he tries to balance competing interests. But to abandon the UNP and govern with the SLFP would also signal a major distortion of Sirisena’s 8 January mandate, and possibly alter his image as the ‘all round good guy’. Instead, that decision would make President Sirisena look expedient and treacherous, more politician and less statesman. The latter is the image President Sirisena has actively sought to build, and it is unclear still if he will choose to throw it away for the SLFP.

Poor history of co-habitation 

Historically, co-habitation has gone tragically wrong for the UNP. Chandrika Kumaratunga proved faithless and derailed the UNP administration that won power fair and square in 2001, by grabbing three key ministries from Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe and calling snap elections only four months later. After it lost its leverage as an incumbent Government, the UNP could no longer withstand the opposition to its peace-process from nationalist forces within the country then actively cultivated by the Kumaratunga administration in its bid to defeat the UNP.

The UNP Government of 2015, just hurtling past its sixth month in office, is well on course to face a new crisis of co-habitation in the coming weeks. Serious dysfunction plagues the UNP administration, as it struggles to overcome the Central Bank bond scandal and the downward spiral of the rupee that is driving up costs and negating the effects of the economic relief package rolled out in February.

In the meantime, bogged down with playing party politics and consolidating his power against the growing threat from the Rajapaksa cabal mobilising at Abayaramaya, President Sirisena looks to preside over a governance crisis of his own, caused by atrophy and inaction, that threatens to further postpone the delivery of tangible changes he promised on his election stages. (Courtesy Daily FT)


  1. Abusing presidential powers becoming a normal thing for Mr Sirisena. This is not the way he promised in the election.

    • True. But this he is being forced to do, and I think he would rather “spoil” his place History, than spoil the country.

      I respect you expression of disappointment, Saman, but can we suggest a way out?

Comments are closed.