By S. Binodkumar Singh*
On April 4, 2018, Parliament comfortably defeated a No-Confidence Motion brought by the Joint Opposition group led by former President Mahinda Rajapaksa against Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe. Of the 225 Members of Parliament (MPs), 122 MPs – 104 of the United National Party (UNP), 16 of the Tamil National Alliance (TNA), and one each of the Sri Lanka Muslim Congress (SLMC) and Eelam People’s Democratic Party (EPDP) – voted against the No-Confidence Motion. 76 MPs – 70 of the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) and six of the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) – voted in support of the No-Confidence Motion.
Another 26 MPs including 25 SLFP MPs and one MP of the UNP absented themselves from the House during the vote. Speaker Karu Jayasuriya, a UNP MP, did not vote. Significantly, it was the first No-Confidence Motion brought against the current National Unity Government, formed on August 20, 2015.
The Joint Opposition, which is very critical of the current administration of President Maithripala Sirisena and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremasinghe, had announced its ‘Shadow Cabinet’ on July 7, 2016, in which Rajapaksa was appointed ‘shadow Prime Minister’.
In the August 2015 Parliamentary Elections, voters had given a fractured mandate, with none of the parties securing a simple majority. UNP, led by Wickremesinghe, had secured 106 seats [93 ‘District-basis’ seats + 13 ‘National-basis seats’], falling seven short of a simple majority in a 225-memebr House; the SLFP could get only 95 seats [83 ‘District-basis’ seats + 12 ‘National-basis seats’].
The main Tamil political party, the Tamil National Alliance (TNA), which contests election in the name of Ilankai Tamil Arasu Kadchi (ITAK), as the TNA itself is not a registered political party, won 16 seats [14 ‘District-basis seats’ + 2 ‘National-basis seats’]. The main Marxist party, Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP, People’s Liberation Front) won six seats [4 ‘District-basis seats’ + 2 ‘National-basis seats’]. The Sri Lanka Muslim Congress (SLMC) and the Eelam People’s Democratic Party (EPDP) got one ‘District-basis seat’ each. [The District-basis seats are those for which direct elections are held. There are 29 ‘National-level seats’ which, according to the 15th Amendment to the Constitution that introduced Article 99A, are decided on the basis of the total number of votes polled by the respective political parties or independent groups at the national level.]
Subsequently, the National Unity Government was formed following a historic agreement between UNP and the SLFP on August 20, 2015. UNP and SLFP are the two major political forces in Sri Lanka, with a long history of bitter rivalry. They engaged fiercely in the Parliamentary Elections of August 17, 2015, but reached a compromise thereafter, as equations within SLFP changed dramatically. The party has virtually split into two factions – one led by Sirisena and the other by Mahinda Rajapaksa. It was during the January 2015 Presidential Elections that Sirisena revolted against his political master, then incumbent President Rajapaksa, who was also the head of SLFP. Though Sirisena was expelled from the party, he contested a successful election against Rajapaksa as a ‘common candidate’ for the New Democratic Front (NDF). Subsequent to his loss, Rajapaksa resigned as the head of SLFP and was succeeded by Sirisena. The latter, however, failed to establish full authority over the party. This became apparent when Rajapaksa successfully contested the Parliamentary Elections as the ‘Prime Ministerial candidate’ of the SLFP, despite Sirisena’s direct opposition. Though reports indicated that most of SLFP’s new Members of Parliament (MPs) were Rajapaksa supporters, the split verdict had put them in a quandary and forced them to seek a compromise. Rajapaksa could be confronted with a judicial reckoning, along with two of his brothers who held high office, for alleged corruption and abuse of power during his regime over the decade. A Sirisena aide, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said “Mahinda has to compromise – resign from politics and Parliament, and settle down as a former president – or face the legal consequences.”
Though, the National Unity Government continued to survive the acrimonious relation within SLFP, it is staring into uncertainty in the aftermath of the February 10, 2018, Local Government elections. The SLFP-UNP ruling alliance suffered a humiliating defeat in the Local Government polls, while Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP, ?Sri Lanka People’s Front), a new party formed on November 2, 2016, emerged victorious. After the final results, the SLPP got 44.65 per cent of the vote. Mahinda Rajapaksa, who led the SLPP to the Local Government elections victory, on February 11, 2018, tweeted,
Thank you to all who supported the vision of the Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna at the LG (Local Government) election. Your voices have been heard. It’s clear that our country needs a change. Despite the personal harassment they may have had to face over the past three years, I earnestly request all those who contested under the SLPP to celebrate this hard won victory peacefully and with restraint and in a manner that will not inconvenience the defeated side. I wish to express my heartfelt thanks to the voting public of Sri Lanka who have reposed their trust in us, and made this victory possible.
Days after they voted in favor of the No-Confidence Motion against Prime Minister Wickremesinghe in Parliament, six Cabinet Ministers and 10 Deputy Ministers and State Ministers of SLFP quit the National Unity Government on April 11, 2018. Further, on April 27, 2018, 16 Ministers, Deputy Ministers and State Ministers of SLFP requested Parliament Secretary General W.B.D. Dassanayake in writing to arrange their seating in the opposition benches.
Meanwhile, Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe while meeting President Maithripala Sirisena on February 11, 2018, agreed to continue the National Unity Government formed under the leadership of President Sirisena until 2020, when the President’s term expires. Significantly, on April 12, 2018, a day after 16 MPs quit the National Unity Government, President Sirisena issued a gazette proroguing Parliament with effect from April 12, 2018, midnight, until May 8, 2018.
Separately, criticizing the Office for Missing Persons (OMP), a special office set up to determine the status of all persons who went ‘missing’ during the civil war against the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), Joint Opposition member Udaya Gammanpila of Jathika Hela Urumaya (JHU, National Heritage Party), noted, “The OMP aims to bring in reparations to the victims of the nearly three-decade long armed conflict in the country. This is nothing but a mechanism to try war heroes (soldiers who defeated the LTTE).” The Bill to establish the OMP was introduced on May 22, 2016, and on June 21, 2017, was passed unanimously in the Parliament. Meanwhile, the Government on March 13, 2018, operationalized the OMP. An official release stated “The Office on Missing Persons has officially got underway. The main purpose of the OMP is to address the suffering of thousands of families living in all parts of the country whose loved ones have gone missing or disappeared during multiple conflicts in Sri Lanka.”
Another Joint Opposition member Sarath Weerasekera of UPFA alleged, on April 6, 2018,
The tactics of the PM would divide the country and Mr. Wickremesinghe is betraying the country by giving priority to conditions put forward by the TNA. It became evident how strong the relationship between the TNA and Premier Wickremesinghe when the TNA voted against the no-faith Motion against him. It is a shame to say that TNA being the official opposition party in Parliament is voting in favour of Prime Minister Ranil Wickremsinghe.
Indeed, the earlier Sri Lankan Government led by Rajapaksa as well as the current National Unity Government have opposed a strident campaign by the international community, particularly western nations, to interfere in the country’s internal affairs in the guise of ‘investigation of war crimes’, through the adoption of several resolutions.
On the other hand, the Northern Province Council led by Chief Minister C.V. Wigneswaran of TNA passed a resolution on February 27, 2018, requesting the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) to establish an International Court to investigate allegations of war crimes against the armed forces during the decades-long civil war between the LTTE and the Army. The resolution was submitted by the Northern Provincial Councilor M.K. Shivajilingam at the 37th UNHRC session at Geneva on February 27, 2018. The resolution stated,
A probe by the government to solve human rights violations cannot be trusted. Since the latest UNHRC session has begun, a resolution should be sent to it. This council calls upon the UN and the international community to require Sri Lanka to ratify the Rome statute as recommended by the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights investigation on Sri Lanka.
The Sri Lankan Government has not opposed this resolution thus far.
Discreetly, on April 9, 2018, the Joint Opposition decided to submit a letter to Speaker Karu Jayasuriya demanding that TNA Leader R. Sampanthan be removed as the Opposition Leader of Parliament, citing Sampanthan’s decision to vote against the Joint Opposition sponsored No-Confidence Motion against the Prime Minister. TNA was recognized as the Main Opposition and its leader Sampanthan was designated as Opposition Leader on September 3, 2015. Prior to this, Tamil United Liberation Front (TULF) leader A. Amirthalingam was the only Tamil politician who had served as Opposition Leader (from 1977 to 1983). Sampanthan was also an MP of the main opposition at that time.
Conspicuously, though the National Unity Government has survived the current political storm, the inherent rift within the SLFP will keep the Government busy fighting for survival. Escalating confrontationist politics, moreover, is likely to hamper the ongoing reconciliation process in the country.
*S. Binodkumar Singh
Research Associate, Institute for Conflict Management