by C.A. Chandraprema
The no confidence motion against Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe has taken the political centrestage. In normal circumstances, this no confidence motion need not have been taken seriously at all. The UNP has 106 MPs and their allies the TNA has 17 and that alone would have sufficed to render the no confidence motion redundant even before it was taken up for debate. But this no confidence motion was not presented in parliament under normal circumstances. The Joint Opposition which submitted the motion has only 52 MPs. The SLFP group in the government which may support it, another 44, bringing the total number of those who may vote for the motion to a maximum of 96. It is certain that not all in the SLFP group will vote for this no confidence motion even if President Sirisena asks them to vote for it. There is a very strong possibility that up to ten SLFP members may vote against the no confidence motion.
Going by those numbers, this motion should be dead in the water from the moment it was handed in but it is not. The reason why it has become a major issue is the ever increasing possibility of a revolt within the UNP itself. This revolt is not necessarily due to the due to the inherent merits of the no confidence motion but due to a long standing need within the UNP to get rid of their leader. The Joint Opposition realising that this is the most effective sales pitch for the no confidence motion, has been plumbing that line for all they are worth.
Some of the posts that appeared during the past few days on facebook pages sympathetic to the JO went as follows:
“This is not against the government. It’s against Ranil.”
“If you keep Ranil on as leader you will have to field an outsider as presidential candidate again. Are you going to remove Ranil and have a proper UNP candidate contesting the presidency the next time at least? The choice is yours!”
“Ranil has been your leader since 1994 and you have been defeated 30 times. He used Sirisena and managed to win once, but then Sirisena used and deceived you. If you don’t get rid of Ranil at least this time, your party will have no future until he dies”.
“Are you going to have Ranil as the party leader until he dies or are you going to get rid of him while you have the chance to do so? It’s up to the UNP to decide”.
“Even though you thought Ranil was a master brain (molaya), you now realize he is just a potato (alaya) incapable of doing anything. He has destroyed the economy, the country and your party as well and created a situation where people retch at the mention of the UNP. At least now shall we see whether he can be removed, and the party leadership given to some capable person?”
These are the kind of posts that should have appeared on the facebook page of a UNP dissident like Maithri Gunaratne, but they all appeared in well known pro-SLPP facebook pages. The JO is not going on the inherent merits of the no confidence motion even though it does have inherent merits. The motion concentrates mainly on various aspects of the bond scam and the Prime Minister’s role in making it possible and the attempts he made to sweep the whole thing under the carpet after the scam took place. The failure to take prompt action to prevent the Sinhala Muslim clashes in Kandy while being the Law and Order Minister has also been tagged on to the no confidence motion. What the Joint Opposition has done is to give the UNP members of parliament the tantalizing and virtually irresistible prospect of being able to get rid of Ranil. If he loses the premiership, he will not be able to remain as party leader. By ousting Ranil, the UNP need not give up what they have because some other candidate from the UNP can be appointed prime minister and they can continue to be a partner in the government. So on the face of it, the UNP appears to have nothing to lose and everything to gain by backing the no confidence motion against their own leader.
Staring into a political black hole
Today, when any member of the UNP thinks about the future, all that he can see will be absolute darkness. The UNP was soundly defeated at the local government elections even though no government in power has lost a local government election. So when it comes to the provincial council elections, what is certain is defeat once again. Thereafter the presidential elections will be held towards the end of 2019 and there is no prospect of any UNP candidate winning that either. In fact the UNP would be hard put to find a suitable candidate to even field at the 2019 presidentail election. If they field RW, he would have lost even before the contest.
If they were to field someone else at the 2019 presidentail elections while RW remains the leader of the party and Prime Minister, once again the UNP candidate will be seriously hobbled and have no prospect of winning. In fact if the candidate is not the leader of the party one can expect the incumbent leader to do his damnest to defeat his own candidate because a victory for the presidential candidate means that RW would lose his job as leader of the UNP. Back in 1982, when the SLFP fielded Hector Kobbekaduwa, the Bandaranaike family was openly hostile to the thought of a Kobbekaduwa victory. So the UNP cannot field someone else as their candidate either.
Someone could argue however, that if the UNP changes its leader now and appoints a new Prime Minister, the renewal in the party may give the UNP at least a fighting chance at the forthcoming provincial council elections and the presidential elections next year. Thus the temptation to use this opportunity to evict Ranil Wickremasinghe will be very strong indeed. After the defeat of the ruling coalition at the recent local government elections, it was the SLFP that first said that they cannot continue with Ranil Wickremesinghe as the Prime Minister. They were in fact mooting the possibility of moving a no confidence motion against Ranil and appointing an SLFP Prime Minister with the support of the Joint Opposition. Later, the refrain was taken up by some members of the UNP itself, with Palitha Range Bandara and Wasantha Senanayake hinting that they may support a no confidence motion against the Prime Minister. There is a large constituency in the UNP which regards this no-confidence motion as an opportunity to get rid of Ranil.
Given the fact that the no confidence motion is being moved by the enemy one would think that members of the UNP would be diffident about availing themselves of this opportunity to get rid of RW. How will the UNP rank and file react to the idea of UNP parliamentarians voting for a no confidence motion brought against their own leader? However, given the fact that there have been many internal rebellions within the UNP and all of them have failed to get rid of RW, this latest opportunity that has opened up may be too tantalizing to resist. Furthermore, since the UNP rank and file are also not happy with RW, they may not mind if their MPs vote for the no confidence motion for the purpose of getting rid of RW. The desire to be rid of Ranil Wickremesinghe is much greater within the UNP than outside it. If RW is ousted from the premiership through this no confidence motion, he will not be able to retain control of the UNP any longer.
The foreign dimension
However, it will be a mistake to take into account only the local factors in relation to the politics of the present government. One must not forget that foreign parties had much to do with bringing this sgovernment into power and they will want to protect their investment. One of the biggest strengths that RW has is the fact that the foreign powers that brought this government into power need him much more than any other leader in the coalition government. The whole yahapalana project will be different without Ranil.
It is his single minded willingness to submit to foreign diktat that makes RW such a valuable ally to the foreign powers. He is not following foreign diktat reluctantly, simply for the sake of power. He is in fact even more convinced than the foreign powers themselves that that foreigners are always right and that Sri Lanka should be governed the way the foreign powers want. Ranil Wickremesinghe is the most willing client that any foreign patron could hope for, and they are not going to allow him to be ousted if they can help it. The constitutional reform process to devolve power to nine semi independent provincial units, the UNHRC resolution 30/1 whereby Sri Lanka has undertaken to institute war crimes tribunals with foreign judges, the proposed ETCA with India, the 99 year lease of the Hambantota harbor are all associated with Ranil Wickremasinghe and his immediate cabal of friends including Mangala Samaraweera.
The foreign powers know that dissesnsion that takes place within political parties is often if not always based on someone not getting what he wants. Maithriapala Sirisena turned his back on Mahinda Rajapaksa because he was not given the premiership. Except in rare instances when a particular position is being aimed at for the sake of prestige, the reason why people are interested in positions is mostly to make money or to establish oneself politically using the resources and the employment generating capacity of the position concerned. Hence the foreign powers know that if the right amount of money is thrown around, it may be possible to retain the support of digrantled elements within the UNP. From what we have heard being said inside and outside parliament, such an operation is already in progress.
What will the Joint Opposition gain?
Conventional wisdom would indicate that it is disadvantageous for the JO to get rid of Ranil Wickremesinghe at this point in time and the best option for them would be to allow RW to remain until the presidential elections next year so that the SLPP would be able to harvest the resentment created among the general public. By getting rid of RW, they will be helping to rid the UNP of its biggest liability and thereby they will be freeing and rejuvenating the UNP and making it stronger, not weaker. A new leader, regardless of who he is, will do better than RW in that job and a change in leadership may see many of those who left the UNP due to differences with RW rallying around the party again and that would make things tougher for the SLPP at the next presidential elections. Furthermore, the UNP will get the bulk of the minority vote as well and a rejuvenated UNP may be a formidable enemy indeed.
Even though that is the conventional view, there is also the well founded view that the UNP is far too gone today for even a change of leadership to be able to rejuvenate it. Furthermore, there is the feeling that if RW is kept on till the presidential elections next year, and a change of leadership in the UNP takes only after if it is defeated, then the next government will face a new and rejuvenated UNP under a new leader. It will be better for the SLPP if the UNP starts off again with yet another defeated leader. If RW is ousted now, the next leader will be taking over a major mess and he too will not be able to turn back the tide. In fact, it is unlikely that a new leader will even want to take over at this point in time. What we may see will most probably be a stop-gap leader who will take the consequences of the mess that RW created and disappear into obscurity in the event that the UNP is defeated at the next presidential election.
Thereafter the next leader who takes over will have a difficult time trying to convince the party rank and file that he did not dive under the bed during the crisis. Anyone trying to build up his leadership credentials should have the courage to take on the leadership of the party at its worst moment, when the party is down and out in the immediate aftermath of Ranil’s ouster (if it takes place). It is only then that he will be able to claim that he took on the challenge head on without ducking for cover and thinking about himself rather than the party. If the UNP gets rid of Ranil by supporting the no confidence motion, what they will need after that will be a willing Don Quixote to tilt at the Rajapaksa windmill. Anyone who refuses to play Don Quixote and sends someone else to the frontlines, will not be able to claim that he took on the challenge when the party needed him.
But if he takes on the challenge and loses, then he too will begin his tenure as a loser. So the potential successors to RW will be on the horns of a major dilemma due to this no confidence motion. Rather than allowing a new leader of the UNP to make fresh start after an electoral defeat, there is a clear long term political advantage to the SLPP in forcing change upon the UNP and then making them fail even after the change. The potential leaders who could replace RW are undoubtedly aware of this, which is why we do not see any of them saying anything against RW at this moment. The best option for any potential successor would be to allow RW to continue as the party leader and prime minister until the next presidential and parliamentary elections and after RW leads the UNP into another debacle and calls it a day, to come in as a new leader.
So to the question whether getting rid of Ranil will help the UNP at this stage, the answer is that it may not. In fact the greater likelihood is that getting rid of Ranil at this stage will queer the pitch for his successor as well and plunge the UNP into yet another crisis. After the multiple disasters of the past two and a half decades, anyone who succeeds RW will have to come in as a fresh face, with no record of defeat or disaster to his name.
Sudath Chandrasekera’s resignation
It would be an understament to say that Sudath Chandrasekera’s widely circulated letter of resignation has sent shockwaves through the UNP. There is no one in the UNP who does not know Sudath. He had been a member of Wickremesinghe’s personal entourage from the mid-1980s. The fact that he chose this moment to decamp and to make public the reasons for his decision is significant. No doubt there is an element of abandoning a sinking ship in all this, but what Sudath has said in his letter finds resonance within the UNP from top to bottom. Coming from someone who has been a member of RW’s inner circle for more than three decades, it confirms the impressions that many people had formed independently. Sudath has spoken of the manner in which RW tended to go into a world of his own whenever he had power and that all problems emanated from this propensity. Sudath has also said that RW did not know the meaning of the word gratitude and that he showed even a glimmer of it only when he was down and desperate.
Sudath has also articulated several grievances which are heard quite often in the UNP such as not being able to do anything for the UNP activists he organized to ensure the victory of the party. One case he has mentioned in particular is the kurundu polu clash that took place in Matara in 2014 which he has admitted to jointly organizing with Mangala Samaraweera to stop the march that was started from Devundara to Colombo by Maithri Gunaratne and Shiral Laktilleke demanding that RW resign from the party leadership. Sudath had said that if that march had been allowed to reach Colombo, Ranil would not now be sitting in the PM’s chair. Sudath had stated that RW never summoned and thanked the 86 individuals who have been charged by the police for involvement in that clash and that nothing had been done for any of them either and that they were now reduced to selling their jewellery and property to meet the costs of litigation.
In fact, from the time this government came into power, political activists in the Matara district had been keeping a close watch on those who had participated in the kurundu polu clash to see whether they had got employment or other benefits because that would be a sign that something was available for them also to be able to stake their claims. Hence the fact that the kurundu polu hamudawa had got nothing from this government, was known to this writer independently. Ranil Wickremesinghe never took politics seriously. For him, politics and all that went on in the name of politics was one huge ‘gon paat’. His contempt for the hoi polloi was barely disguised. He reveled at pitting one candidate for a position against another and watching them fight like cats and dogs for the crumbs that fall from his table. Today, the chickens are coming home to roost and a no confidence motion which in normal circumstances would not have had a snowflake’s chance in hell of succeeding, has assumed the proportions of a career endangering challenge.