The no-confidence motion also accuses the prime minister of violating financial regulations, failure to arrest the rising cost of living and, rather brazenly given the involvement of opposition political activists in it, the failure to bring the recent anti Muslim riots under control as the minister of law and order.
The no-confidence motion against the prime minister is an escalation of the efforts by the opposition to break the unity of the National Unity government following the local government election. Immediately after the election, and the unexpectedly poor performance of the UNP and SLFP, there was a move by SLFP members to compel President Sirisena to reunite with former President Rajapaksa and the SLPP. The SLFP members saw that the SLFP vote had shifted to SLPP. They feared that their continuing partnership with the UNP, the traditional rival of the SLFP, would alienate the SLFP voter who would not vote for them again. A watershed was reached when President Sirisena publicly announced that he would sack Prime Minister Wickremesinghe. But this was not an option under the 19th Amendment.
If the no-confidence motion is taken up in parliament with President Sirisena’s support it will be the end of the Government of National Unity and all it stood for. At the elections held in 2015 a majority of the people voted for the government and what it promised in terms of anti corruption, human rights and good governance. Although registering a significant improvement over the past government, the unity government failed to deliver on many if not most of its promises. If the no-confidence motion succeeds, it is certain that those promises will not be fulfilled for a long time to come. In particular, the political roots of the ethnic conflict will not be dealt with, those who engaged in criminal enterprises will not be brought to book and the example of good governance that Sri Lanka might have set for the world will not come to pass.
The key deciding factor in whether or not the no-confidence motion will or will not go through will be President Sirisena. For the past several months he has been on the war path against his prime minister. First he began to publicly assail him on the grounds of covering up the corruption of the Central Bank bond scam. Then after the debacle of the local government election that saw the President’s party reduced to third place, the president appeared to join with the government’s foes in the opposition to plot the ouster of the prime minister who had campaigned by his side for his presidential election victory.
During those honeymoon days of their relationship in 2015 when the duo campaigned against former President Mahinda Rajapaksa and his seemingly invincible government, candidate Sirisena remarked that he had the highest regard for the UNP leader and would call him “Sir.” Only few leaders in the world have been able to triumph over the hubris that electoral victory at a presidential election brings in its wake. George Washington in the United States and Nelson Mandela in South Africa are two of those glowing examples. And like in Abou Ben Adhem’s dream, it is to be hoped that the name of Maithripala Sirisena will join that select group whose names are written in gold in the heavens. It is essential that for the future of Sri Lanka and the belated implementation of the MOU of 2015, that the president should be willing to work again with the prime minister.
Among the many reasons that can be given for the souring of relations between the two main leaders of the National Unity government are their different visions for Sri Lanka’s future. Polar opposites in their origins, one from the most rural and other from the most elite, they have contrasting economic models of cosmopolitan and statist development that cater to the most elite and to the generally disempowered. There was also tension between their time frames of tackling the corruption and criminal activities of the past and also the non consultative approach to governance in which decisions were taken without the approval or understanding of the other party in government. There was the lack of a bridge between the two personalities and two parties that will remain even if this crisis is overcome.
However, the central issue that pitted the president and prime minister against each other is the question of which one of them would be the presidential candidate in 2020 when the next presidential election falls due. Initially it seemed that the prime minister would have a clear path. President Sirisena pledged he would be a one-term president and would not contest again. This promise was based on the implicit understanding that the pledges in the mandate received at the elections of 2015 and the MOU signed by him and the prime minister would be honoured.
If the pledges of the MOU had indeed been honoured the leaders of the old regime would have been subjected to the law and no longer been capacitated to give leadership to the SLFP. This would have meant that the president would not have faced an obstacle to uniting the SLFP under his leadership. He would then have been able to leave the presidency in 2020 secure in the knowledge that he would be succeeded by either a UNP president or SLFP president with no ill will towards him.
Unfortunately, neither the mandate nor the MOU of 2015 was implemented. Instead the former leaders of the old regime are now dominating the political landscape. They have taken the position that their recent election victories have absolved them from accountability for their past wrongs. The SLFP that is led by the president has been reduced to third place. In these circumstances the only way that the president can safeguard himself and the members of the SLFP who have remained with him is to retain the presidency for another term. It is only as Executive President of Sri Lanka for another five year term that the President Sirisena as leader of the SLFP can offer anything to the members of his party or ensure his own safety.
The rift at the heart of the government may be healed if the MOU of 2015 that expired at the end of 2017 is renewed with an additional clause that takes President Sirisena’s concerns about the presidential candidacy for 2020 into account. This is the root of the power struggle that has led to the non-performance of the MOU. It will be best for the implementation of the reform agenda that they embarked upon that President Sirisena and Prime Minister Wickremesinghe overcome their differences, their mutual senses of betrayal by the other and defeat the no-confidence motion together.