UPFA ministers will act as caretaker government at the next parliamentary polls
UNP’s generosity has turned against the very party which is evident with the hounding of Rajitha and Champika by the new government
UNP’s late entry into presidential fray owing to infighting might have contributed to its defeat
A situation similar to the one that prevailed after the 2015 presidential poll has unfolded. On both occasions, the political party that mustered a majority in Parliament ceded to a smaller party – last time submissively and this time voluntarily.
Immediately after Maithripala Sirisena was sworn in as President on January 9, 2015, he unceremoniously dumped incumbent Prime Minister D.M. Jayarathna and replaced him with United National Party (UNP) leader Ranil Wickremesinghe who had only 54 seats in the 225-member Parliament.
History repeated this time as well. A similar regime change took place with the United People’s Freedom Alliance (UPFA) which has only 105 seats in Parliament taking charge of the government a few days after Gotabaya Rajapaksa assumed presidency on November 18. However, this time around, it was not a forcible power grab as in 2015. The incumbent Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe voluntarily stepped down giving way for Mahinda Rajapaksa to hold the post.
On the one hand, it is a well-known fact that on both occasions, the party that sacrificed, or was deprived of power, was not happy with the situation; they were compelled to put up with what happened. On the other, these regime changes were against the Constitution that says: “The President shall appoint as Prime Minister the Member of Parliament who, in the President’s opinion, is most likely to command the confidence of Parliament.”
Then, why did the UPFA, the party that was in power immediately prior to the regime change in 2015, meekly submit to the situation rather than revolting against the power grab by the UNP? In fact, the UPFA then had near two-thirds of power in Parliament despite it having ceded to highhanded power grab by the Maithri-Ranil combination. Similarly, why did the UNP surrender the government to the UPFA in November last year after fiercely fighting to protect it some thirteen months ago during the constitutional coup in October 2018 on the grounds that the same UPFA did not have the necessary numbers in Parliament?
The collapse in morale due to the defeat at the presidential election seems to be the reason for the submission by the ruling parties. However, some UNP leaders argue that they relinquish power since they did not have the mandate to retain it after the defeats at the 2018 local government elections and last year’s presidential poll. Yet, the new UPFA Government is not in a position to pass any bill or motion in Parliament despite the magnanimity and generosity of the UNP.
And the UNP’s generosity has turned against the very party which is evident with the hounding of its leaders such as former ministers Rajitha Senaratne and Patali Champika Ranawaka by the new government. Senaratne was arrested for organising a press conference for two individuals who claimed they worked as drivers of “white vans” that were used to abduct people -- the victims were allegedly dumped in lakes infested with crocodiles. The press conference was held during the tail end of the last presidential election campaign and the duo further claimed that Gotabaya Rajapaksa was the Defence Secretary when people were so abducted. It has to be noted that Rajitha Senaratne was arrested while the veracity of the claim was yet to be ascertained.
Ranawaka was arrested over a road accident that took place in 2016. Apart from the question remaining as to what fresh evidence have surfaced to reopen the case, the UNP leaders argue that Ranawaka was a victim of political vendetta which is vehemently denied by the UPFA leaders. Will these politicians hold the same stand had Ranawaka been with Rajapaksas during the just concluded presidential election?
The UNP’s generosity and so-called respect for people’s mandate have cost the party in several other ways too. Now, all government institutions would act in favour of the ruling party. Questions have already been raised over the transfer of former CID Director Shani Abeysekara to Galle DIG office by the National Police Commission. The UPFA ministers would act as the caretaker government at the next parliamentary elections which are expected to be held in April or May.
It is against this backdrop that the leaders of the UNP have been continuing their power struggle. Although the bickering between the groups led by party leader Ranil Wickremesinghe and deputy leader Sajith Premadasa cannot be termed as the main reason for the party’s defeat at the presidential election, one has to accept that it had demoralised at least a section of party supporters. Now, they are fighting over party leadership and this might delay the selection of candidates for the parliamentary polls, having a bearing on the party’s prospects at that election as well.
The party entered the presidential fray very late due to infighting and that too might have contributed to the defeat. Halfway through the campaign, Sajith Premadasa unnecessarily opened up a fresh debate over premiership. Despite the UNP working committee at its meeting where Premadasa was named presidential candidate having decided that Ranil Wickremesinghe would continue to be the party leader and the Prime Minister, Premadasa announced that he would appoint a Prime Minister of his choice after the presidential election. This prompted Wickremesinghe to re-announce that he would continue as premier.
Moreover, the faction that rooted for Premadasa openly accused the Wickremesinghe-led group of scuttling the campaign by not providing sufficient funds, thus leading to a new fight over the opposition leader’s post. Having succeeded, Sajith loyalists now demand party leadership. After ceding the party’s presidential candidature, opposition leader’s post and prime ministerial candidacy to Premadasa and claiming that he would relinquish party leadership soon, Wickremesinghe does not seem to be prepared to hand it over to Premadasa.
Subsequent to the parliamentary elections, both factions will wake up to the stark reality when the government will not be the same as the one before the polls.