COLOMBO: Sri Lankan President Maithripala Sirisena is said to be wanting his coalition partner, the United National Party (UNP), to suggest a replacement for Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe before the No-Confidence Motion (NCM) against the latter is debated on April 4.

The fact that the debate has been put off till April 4 shows that the government has bought time to settle the matter through negotiations, without going the whole hog with a debate and a vote.

“It is well known that the President and his party, the SLFP, are unable to work with Wickremesinghe. But the President does not want to break the coalition with the UNP which brought him to power in the January 8, 2015 Presidential election,” a Cabinet Minister said.

“ Moreover, if the NCM is passed, it will be a reflection on the entire government of which the President and his party, the SLFP, are part. The President would therefore like the UNP to replace Wickremesinghe with somebody else before the NCM is taken up for debate,” the Minister said.

Prospects For No Confidence Motion

However, it is not clear as to how the NCM will fare. Most MPs are keeping their cards close to the chest as each of the them is required to consider several factors before committing to the NCM one way or the other.

The bare numbers are as follows: Sirisena’s SLFP has 41 members in parliament, the majority of whom would like to back the NCM because the SLFP has been in daily confrontation with the Prime Minister and his UNP in the coalition government.

“SLFPers”, as they are called in local parlance, would like to align themselves with the JO, which is composed of a breakaway group of the SLFP and like-minded MPs led by the charismatic former President Mahinda Rajapaksa.

The 41 MPs of the SLFP are dreaming of a day when the two factions of the party will be unified and an SLFP-led government is formed without the UNP. The UNP is seen as being too Rightist and too pro-West by the Left of Center SLFP.

The JO has 51 MPs. Along with four more from the SLFP, it submitted an NCM to the parliament Speaker Karu Jayasuriya on Wednesday. But the NCM needs the votes of 113 MPs (or just over half of the parliament of 225 members) to oust the Prime Minister. In other words it has to get 58 more supporters.

The UNP has 82 and its allies in the United National Front (UNF) have 25. Therefore, the UNP-led group has a total of 106 which makes it the single largest group in parliament.

For the NCM to be carried, the movers will have to get the support of the 37 SLFP MPs still with Sirisena, and 18 others from the other parties, including the UNP.

But getting support from the UNP, the Tamil National Alliance (TNA), Janata Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) and the Muslim parties will not be easy. The TNA and the Muslim parties are unlikely to support a motion backed by Rajapaksa, who is seen as “anti-minority”. The JVP is unpredictable.

The JO is thus banking on two sources of support: Firstly, the wholehearted support of the SLFP led by President Sirisena, and Secondly, the defection of 18 MPs from the UNP-led UNF.

However, as stated earlier, Sirisena is reluctant to break the SLFP’s alliance with the UNP as he owes his Presidency to the UNP. He had fought and won the Presidential election in January 2015 as the candidate of an UNP-led coalition of anti-Rajapaksa parties. Nevertheless, Sirisena is game for replacing Wickremesinghe in the Prime Minister’s post as he has been unable to see eye to eye with him on most matters due to various reasons principally ideological.

But the diehard anti-UNP elements in the SLFP, who are in a majority, want a break not only with Wickremesinghe, but with the UNP itself. SLFPers believe that continued alliance with the UNP will lower their appeal among the party’s traditional supporters who are anti-UNP.

Since parliamentary elections are due in August 2020, the sooner the alliance with the UNP is broken the better for them.

Therefore the President is on the horns of a dilemma. Knowledgeable sources say that he is considering a middle path, which is to request Wickremesinghe to step down voluntarily before the NCM is taken up, and ask the UNP to elect another parliamentary leader.

UNP Might Rally Behind Wickremesinghe

But UNPers are livid that outsiders should tell them who their leader should be.

“We have serious differences with Wickremesinghe, but we cannot replace him because outsiders want it,” a UNP member said.

Indeed, the UNP appears to be united behind its leader Wickremesinghe. Earlier, when the President suggested that Speaker Karu Jayasuriya replace Wickremesinghe, the UNP unitedly opposed the move and stood by Wickremesinghe. This time too, the party is expected to back him when push comes to shove.

Even an open Wickremesinghe opponent like junior Minister Palitha Range Bandara has said in an interview that the NCM will fail. But he wanted the UNP to set its house in order.

A lawyer affiliated to the UNP said: “The UNP will defeat the NCM, but at the same time it should get rid of the oligarchy of the Colombo 7 elite ruling the roost in the party.”