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Sri Lanka: President Finds Way To Ease Mahinda Rajapaksa Out Of Premiership – Analysis

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Move to get parliament to deny majority support to Mahinda

The Sri Lankan President, Gotabaya Rajapaksa, in collusion with the 11-party “Independent Group” in parliament, has found a constitutional way to dislodge Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa from the Prime Ministership and form an “all-party government.”  

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The 11-party group’s “enemy number one” is Mahinda Rajapaksa, his brother Basil and son Namal, and not President Gotabaya Rajapaksa. Therefore, the plan is to retain Gotabaya Rajapaksa as President and engineer the exit of Mahinda, his brothers Basil and Chamal Rajapaksa, and son Namal Rajapaksa.    

Decided after a meeting between the President and the 11-party group on Friday, the plan is to form a five-member group drawn from the 11-party Independent Group “to take forward the mechanism of forming an all-party government”. This is but a euphemism for gathering majority support in parliament for the formation of an all-party government without Mahinda Rajapaksa and his siblings barring President Gotabaya Rajapaksa.

If the 11-party group is able to muster the support of 113 MPs in the House of 225 members (that is, a simple majority) the President can call upon the group to name its nominee for Premiership. In that case, Mahinda Rajapaksa quits office automatically. The new Premier will then have to prove majority support for him in parliament.

Mahinda Rajapaksa must be aware of this plan because he himself had been made Prime Minister in this way by President Maithripala Sirisena in October 2018. But he failed to prove majority support in parliament even after being in office for 52 days. 

On his part, Mahinda has said that he will quit if the President asks him to. But at the same time, he made it clear that he will not take a subservient role in the ruling dispensation after being sacked. He will make a clean break with it and sit in the opposition benches as an opposition party.

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According to Mahinda, he has the support of the majority in the ruling Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP) at the provincial, local and grassroots levels and will be voted to power in the next parliamentary elections.

Given the fact that he is on the wrong side of 75, Mahinda knows that he cannot be an active politician for long. He is therefore keen on grooming his son Namal Rajapaksa, first to be an opposition leader and then to be President of Sri Lanka. He told Tamil journalists some time ago about this plan. He had himself honed his political skills as an opposition activist, he recalled.

Fractured Parliament

Given the President’s instruction to the 11-party group to gather support for an all-party government, the political scene has now shifted  to parliament. But the going there is not expected to be easy as parliament is a very fractured entity, with political parties there pulling in different directions.

The main opposition party in parliament, the Samagi Jana Balawegaya (SJB) and the Janata Vimkuthi Peramuna (JVP) are against the formation of an all-party government with Gotabaya Rajapaksa continuing as President. Both want the President to go. The SJB is to move a No Confidence Motion against the government and is also touting the idea of impeaching the President.

The Tamil National Alliance is wanting to know what the next government has for the Tamils before joining any move to dislodge the present regime. The Tamil Progressive Alliance representing the Indian Origin Tamils wants the abolition of the 20th Amendment and its replacement by the 19th Amendment so that  parliament has more powers. Mahinda Rajapaksa has put forward a proposal to have a mix of the best parts of the 19th and 20th Amendments to be presented as the 21st Amendment.   

Therefore, what will happen in parliament when the issue of gathering support for an all-party government with Gotabaya Rajapaksa continuing as Executive President is anyone’s guess.

Mahinda Rajapaksa is confident that he will be the Opposition Leader, but will the current leader Sajith Premadasa of the SJB meekly surrender that position? It is very unlikely that JVP will support Mahinda who will be in competition with it for the Sinhala-nationalist constituency.

Buddhist Monks

The Buddhist monks are also divided. Some time back, the four Mahanayakes or Prelates of the various chapters or Nikayas, had demanded that the government concentrate on the country’s problems and solve them to bring relief to the suffering masses battling with shortages and sky-rocketing prices. If their demand was not acceded to, they had threatened to issue an edict. The President has written to the Mahanayakes saying that he is trying to form an all-party government and that he respects their sentiments.

In the meanwhile, at least one monk, the Anunayake of the Malwatte chapter, Ven. Niyangoda Vijithasiri Thera, told the state-owned Daily News that if Mahinda Rajapaksa is removed and a new government is set up, the international community will pursue charges of war crimes against him. The monk told a group of SLPP MPs that parliamentarians must take into account the activities of the UN Human Rights Council and act with caution. If they are charges of corruption against Mahinda, they should be proved with facts. Otherwise, the allegations will be invalid, he added.    

Centre of Policy Alternatives Survey

A recent survey conducted by the Colombo-based Centre for Policy Alternatives (CPA) among 1200 people across Sri Lanka, found that the Gotabaya Rajapaksa regime is being blamed for the economic crisis which is considered to be the worst crisis in post-independence Sri Lanka. 62% blamed the economic mismanagement of the Gotabaya Rajapaksa government for the mess up, whilst 14.5%  blamed previous regimes also.

Nine out of ten Sri Lankans held the opinion that Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa should resign and that the Rajapaksa family should leave politics. 87% supported the demand that President Gotabaya Rajapaksa should resign.

It is important to note that this view is harbored by all ethnic communities including the Sinhala majority who overwhelmingly voted him in three years ago, the survey report said.

“There is clear public support for the other proposals such as, that the country should be governed by a ‘council of experts’ until it overcomes the current crisis, the abolition of the Executive Presidency, the establishment of an interim government comprising of all parties in parliament, and the repealing the 20th Amendment and replacing it with an amendment similar to the 19th amendment to the Constitution,” the CPA said.

However, people seem to be cautious about the demand that all the 225 MPs should resign. Only 56% of Sri Lankans support such a proposal.

Support for the proposals in existence does not vary significantly across different ethnic communities, the survey revealed.

“A significant majority of Sri Lankans express pessimism about their future. Only 2% believe that the country’s economy will return to its normal status soon. 58% think it will take a long time and 14% think that it will take some time. A little over a quarter of Sri Lankans state that they do not know as to when the country’s economy will return to normalcy,” the survey report said.    

Fear of Radicalization

Some senior working class Sri Lankans this reported talked to said that if the demonstrators behave irresponsibly, the police may get provoked and might react violently, exacerbating the crisis. And if the political parties fail to resolve issues, the army might have to take over. To prevent these things from happening, as a first step, Mahinda Rajapaksa must resign to make way for an all-party government.

The absence of any idea of an alternative dispensation would still be a cause of worry, they said while stressing that bringing down the political temperature should get priority.

P. K. Balachandran

P. K. Balachandran is a senior Indian journalist working in Sri Lanka for local and international media and has been writing on South Asian issues for the past 21 years.

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