COLOMBO: The on-going power struggle in Sri Lanka between two powerful groups, one led by President Maithripala Sirisena and Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa; and the other led by ousted Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe; has been keeping the 21 million citizens of the island nation on the edge since October 26.

It was on October 26 that President Sirisena upset the political apple cart when he suddenly and unceremoniously sacked Prime Minister Wickremesinghe and appointed former President Mahinda Rajapaksa in his place.

Sirisena followed this up the very next day by proroguing parliament up to November 15, clearly to enable Rajapaksa to garner supporters among Members of Parliament (MPs) to acquire a parliamentary majority.

But this triggered a domestic and international outcry. Those wanting to be polite called it a “constitutional coup” since the sacking was permissible (albeit in a convoluted way) under the official Sinhalese version of the constitution. But the more blunt critics dubbed it a “Machiavellian power grab in flagrant violation of the constitution.”

On Tuesday, the eleventh day of the crisis, the contest appears to be even. It could go either way between now and November 14, when parliament will meet as per the latest Presidential proclamation.

The United Peoples’ Freedom Alliance (UPFA)-Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP) alliance led by Sirisena and Rajapaksa, has been engineering defections from the United National Front (UNF) led by Wickremesinghe. The UPFA-SLPP tally has gone up from 95 to 104, including one MP from the Tamil National Alliance (TNA).

The UNF, which began with 106, is now down to 99. But it has the support of 15 MPs of the TNA. That makes it a 114 strong group. It is therefore still the single largest grouping in parliament with a majority enabling it to sit in the Treasury benches.

The UPFA-SLPP needs nine more defectors to reach 113 needed to continue to be in the government. It feels it can pull it off because it has power, and the ability to dispense largesse in terms of ministerial posts. It also has time until parliament meets on November 14 and fixes a date for taking up the No Confidence Motion submitted by the UNF.

Distribution of portfolios among party people and defectors is proving to be a problem for the Sirisena-Rajapaksa group. For example, Manusha Nanayakkara of the UPFA was obviously not satisfied either with the Deputy Minister’s post or the portfolio given to him. He left and pledged support to the UNF on Tuesday. Likewise, senior UPFA leader Duminda Dissanayake threatened to defect to UNF with 10 MPs if he was not given the portfolio of irrigation.

Speaker and President On War Path

As if this is not enough, parliament Speaker Karu Jaysruriya and the President are on the war path giving rise to the expectation that when parliament meets on November 14, there will be a titanic clash between the Executive and the Legislature which could result in the dissolution of parliament and the ordering of fresh elections.

President Sirisena declared at a public rally here on Monday that he will not back out of his actions in regard to the Prime Minister and the cabinet. Earlier in the day, the Speaker declared that he will not go by the changes effected by the President on October 26 and thereafter.

The Speaker claimed that the President had given him a verbal assurance that parliament will be ordered to meet on November 7, but contradicting this, his proclamation said it would meet on November 14. An angry Speaker issued a statement saying that he would convene parliament on November 7.

If he does that, it will be clearly illegal and unconstitutional as only the President can convene parliament. But the UNF and the TNA will marshal 114 MPs and demand the right to form the government.

The President would then be compelled to take action against the Speaker for violating the constitution. This could set off a clash between the Legislature and the Executive. Despite dilutions mentioned in the 19 th.Amendment, the Executive Presidency is still endowed with considerable power over the other pillars of the State.

Meanwhile President Sirisena has firmed up his stand.

"I will not step back from the decisions I have taken and will not bow down to pressure," he told the "Ratama Rakina Jana Mahimaya" rally here on Monday.

The President also said that the government formed by the newly appointed Prime Minister Rajapaksa already has 113 MPs on its side to defeat any No Confidence Motion against him.

However, to win over Speaker Karu Jayasuriya, and top UNF leader Sajith Premadasa, the President said that when he was on the lookout for a Prime Minister he had first offered the post to Karu Jayasyuriya and then to Sajith Premadasa. But both had refused to take up the post. Mahinda Rajapaksa was not in the picture until much later.

The President said that he wanted to select a leader suitable for the country and with whom he could work. He said that he could not work with leaders who functioned as per “foreign agendas.”

He was hinting that while he could work with homegrown and nationalistic leaders like Jayasuriya, Premadasa and Rajapaksa, he could not work with pro-West Wickremesinghe.

National Government

Even as the bid to get defectors, and to prevent MPs from crossing over is on, there is talk of forming a national or unity government.

The ball was set rolling on October 31 itself, when top UNF leaders Rajitha Senaratne, Champika Ranawaka and Kabir Hashim proposed a national government. But the Sirisena-Rajapaksa group turned a deaf ear as it was confident of getting 113 plus MPs at that time.

Recently, Rajitha Senaratne, accompanied by UNF stalwart John Amaratunge met President Sirisena. There are rumors that a compromise formula was discussed – perhaps a national government.

There are hints that the Sirisena-Rajapaksa group is also toying with the idea of forming a national government as poaching has proved to more difficult than imagined.

Sri Lanka’s ruling class is divided on the issue, with the vocal sections using Facebook and Twitter being harshly critical of the power grab and subsequent manipulations to engineer defections.

The international community led by the US and including India, has urged speedy return to “constitutionalism’ and the convening of parliament to resolve the issue.

Fear of Dissolution

The most powerful argument for the formation of a national government is that it will prevent the dissolution of parliament before its term ends in mid-2020. If parliament does not complete its constitutionally set term, its members would lose their pension.

And if President Sirisena carries out his threat to resign “within a hour” if Wickremesinghe wins the vote on the No Confidence Motion and becomes Premier, the country will be subjected to a mid-term Presidential election, apart from parliamentary elections. Provincial polls will also have to be held as they are overdue.