23 February 2018 07:54 PM

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P.K.BALACHANDRAN | 14 FEBRUARY, 2018

Last Ditch Effort to Save Tottering Lankan Government: US, India Concerned

Joint committee formed with a 3 day timeframe


COLOMBO: A last ditch effort to save the tottering Sri Lankan ruling coalition by the formation of a Joint Committee to thrash out matters in three days flat is likely to succeed because the posturing politicians involved in the imbroglio know the undesirable consequences of an early dissolution of parliament followed by fresh elections.

Following the crushing defeat it suffered in the February 10 local bodies’ elections, Sri Lanka’s ruling coalition comprising the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) led by President Maithripala Sirisena, and the United National Party (UNP) led by Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe, has been on the verge of a break up.

In the elections, which turned out to a “referendum” on the performance of the National Unity Government, the UNP came a poor second, and the SLFP a poorer third.

The bulk of the local councils, 239 out of 340, went to a new outfit, the Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP) led by former President Mahinda Rajapaksa.

The SLPP was formed by Rajapaksa when he left the SLFP following his defeat in the January 8, 2015 Presidential election at the hands of Maithripala Sirisena who had defected from the SLFP to be the Presidential candidate of the Joint Opposition led by the UNP.

The humiliating defeat in the February 10 local bodies’ elections triggered a vigorous and cantankerous blame game within the ruling coalition which threated to tear it apart.

For the defeat, the SLFP blamed the UNP’s economic and foreign policies, including the infamous LKR 11.4 billion Central Bank bond scam in which Wickremesinghe was allegedly involved, albeit indirectly.

On its part, the UNP blamed the President’s reactionary and conservative thinking for the debacle because he would overturn many decisions taken by the neo-liberal and pro-West UNP.

Cadres and MPs of the SLFP wanted to quit the coalition and join forces with the SLPP led by the popular former President Mahinda Rajapaksa. Others, including the President, wanted the coalition with the UNP to continue because they were completely against any truck with Rajapaksa.

The UNP wanted to continue with the coalition until the end of the term of the current parliament in August 2020. The UNP is the single largest party in parliament with 106 MPs. With so many MPs, it was not in favor of upsetting the applecart by going in for fresh elections.

But irked by the pro-Rajapaksa group’s anti-UNP tirade and threats to join up with the detested and feared Rajapaksa to form an SLFP-SLPP government, the UNP declared that it would form a government on its own with its 106 members plus seven possible defectors from the SLFP.

The UNP needs only seven more MPs to get a simple majority in parliament. Some parties like the Tamil National Alliance could support it from outside and give it a buffer.

Caught between the two antagonistic forces, President Sirisena proposed that the controversial Wickremesinghe steps down in favor of the non-controversial parliament Speaker Karu Jayasuriya, who is also a UNP member.

But when Jayasuriya’s name was proposed, there was a loud chorus of protest from the UNP which felt that a weak Jayasuriya would be dominated by the President and the UNP would not be able to carry out its policies as before.

The UNP insisted that Wickremesinghe should continue to be Prime Minister. And if he is not appointed, they threatened to form a UNP-led government and challenged the President to deny them the right.

However, at the second marathon meeting with the President, tempers cooled and it was decided to form a committee to thrash out all issues in three days’ time and leave the final decision to President Sirisena and Prime Minister Wickremesinghe.

On Tuesday, the Indian High Commissioner, Taranjit Singh Sandhu, and the US Ambassador, Atul Keshap, met the Sri Lankan President and Prime Minister separately.

According to Indian High Commission sources, the meetings had nothing to do with the on-going political crisis and were pre-arranged.

Sandhu’s meetings were preparatory to his forthcoming visit to New Delhi to meet the new Indian Foreign Secretary, Vijay Gokhale. The Indian mission said that Singh discussed bilateral issues and pending Indian projects with the Sri Lankan top brass.

Be that as it may, both India and the US do not want an unstable Sri Lanka because an unstable Sri Lanka will adversely affect their economic and strategic interests in the island nation and the Indian Ocean region.

India and the US would certainly be concerned about the rift in the Lankan coalition government, which has, by and large, been friendly to them and has not played the China card overtly unlike the previous government led by Rajapaksa.

It is doubtful if all the members of the SLFP and its ally the United People's’ Freedom Alliance (UPFA), will accept the recommendation of the reconciliation committee appointed on Tuesday. Many might like to ensure their political future by joining the SLPP led by the popular Rajapaksa.

But many MPs of the SLFP and UPFA would also want to keep the government going till the next parliamentary elections in August 2020 because a snap poll could prove to be disastrous for them unless they get the SLPP to give them tickets.

The SLPP has also indicated that it is willing to wait till the end of the term of the present parliament, though its leader, Rajapaksa, had demanded a snap poll to cash in on his popularity.

It is learnt that SLPP affiliates in parliament who are more than 50, also do not their term cut short by an early dissolution of the House.

All in all, self-interest is likely to ensure the continuance of the coalition government till August 2020 in the fond hope that it will work like a well-oiled machine in the coming months to make up for lost time.

Therefore the last ditch effort of the SLFP-UNP committee to thrash out issues might succeed.
 

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