Sirisena’s political mettle put to the test
In a stormy week of disagreements and splitting of
If the process of enacting the 19th Amendment was largely a flexing
of political muscles and a show of power, the process to have the 20th
Amendment appears to be more daunting than the previous.
Political parties are finding more reasons to disagree than to agree,
splitting hairs on the issue of delimitation and playing number games,
even in the aftermath of the draft receiving the multi-party Cabinet
During a politically stormy week, the Government appeared to have
demonstrated some navigational skills, especially, President Maithripala
Sirisena, who weathered another political storm with his UNP-led
Government, by obtaining, in principle, the agreement of his indecisive
and fractured SLFP- led UPFA, that 20th Amendment too may become law.
Sirisena’s political mettle was further tested as he handled
divergent opinions, emotional outbursts and scepticism, during an array
of critical meetings with political leaders as he held marathon sessions
with a record number of Cabinet meetings being convened within a single
The President, in a bid to muster support for the 20 Amendment, the
introduction of which he considers a reflection of his own commitment to
the public, convened three Cabinet meetings, met with the Sri Lanka
freedom Party (SLFP) and the leaders of the United Peoples’ Freedom
Alliance (UPFA) and Chief Ministers.
During each of these meetings, he sought to convince those within the
UPFA and the SLFP, to unconditionally support the 20th Amendment,
insisting that the draft shared was still open to amendments, offering
them an opportunity to further improve it, before submitting the same to
the Supreme Court, for verifying constitutionality prior to placing it
before the House.
As one of his senior advisers said, for the President who was elected
to office on a good governance platform, having the 20th Amendment
enacted is also a demonstration of accountability.
However, given the quicksand nature of current politics, it seemed
that the Government took serious note of the massive opposition to a
previous move to restrict the size of the legislature to 225 members,
when the Cabinet finally on Friday agreed to increase the number of
parliamentarians to 237.
As things stand, out of the 237, some 145 members will be elected
through the First Past the Post (FPTP) system, 92 on the basis of
Proportional Representation (PR). The 92 member component will include
55 elected on the basis of District PR while 37 members will be
accommodated through the National List.
The next step, now that the draft has received the Cabinet nod, is to
place it before the House, and once there, broker better consensus among
the majority of political parties represented in Parliament.
At the moment, the stakes still remain high, especially in light of
the manner in which the UPFA members are likely to vote, as there is a
still a question of loyalty, given the current political undercurrents.
Besides the technical areas of disagreement, the problem, according
to political analysts, lies with the SLFP led by President Sirisena, who
is still struggling to keep a shaky coalition afloat, while his
predecessor, Mahinda Rajapaksa, continues to make moves to regain the
lost leadership, convincing many in the process, that his leadership is
In a fresh move, the President meanwhile also added four more to an
expanding Cabinet. Thilanga Sumathipala, Sanath Jayasuriya, Vijaya
Dahanayake and Eric Weerawardhane were all sworn in as Deputy Ministers,
bringing the total number of Cabinet of Ministers to 82, well beyond the
promised number of 30.
This move, seen by many as an attempt to ensure the numbers are in
place when the 20th Amendment is finally placed before Parliament for a
vote, is also seen as an attempt to draw more members into the Sirisena
camp, which needs to consolidate itself in order to move further.
The new ministers have been cautioned by others in the UPFA against
accepting portfolios, citing the examples of those who quit in the
recent past due to differences in opinion and inability work within a
UNP-led administration. However, it is learnt that the new ministers
have justified the choice made by them as one of political prudence,
which will help them nurse their electorates better, even for a short
while. What perhaps goes unmentioned is the possibility of utilizing
political power as well as having better access to public resources,
which all come in handy during election time.
Convince the UPFA and SLFP
President Sirisena meanwhile, launched his own initiatives to
convince the rank and file of both the UPFA and the SLFP. First, at a
special Cabinet meeting convened last Monday (8), he sought to explain
the salient features of the proposed constitutional amendment to his
Cabinet colleagues, where he insisted that promises made to the people
must be honoured.
However, this meeting ran into a storm when Rauf Hakeem, Leader of
the Sri Lanka Muslim Congress (SLMC) decided to lock horns with the
President, insisting that if the SLMC views were not taken into
consideration, the premier Muslim political party would be compelled to
boycott parliamentary sessions. In addition, he also put forward the
proposal of issuing two separate ballot papers to make the new mechanism
After Hakeem’s rant, a smiling President said to have responded that
Minister Hakeem was now able to lodge strong protests against what is
proposed, even in an aggressive manner, whereas during the previous
Cabinet, ministers were shouted down and their views were largely
disregarded. “At least here you get a full hearing,” the President had
According to insiders, the President also used the time spent with
his coalition and party members to counter argue that he was not trusted
or supported enough, despite his sincerity of purpose in moving
constitutional amendments according to what he promised during his
On Tuesday, when he convened a party leaders meeting to further
discuss the amendment that is causing a furore, he invited all parties
to submit their recommendations for consideration, explaining that the
Cabinet’s assent was only a policy level approval and the draft could be
further improved upon.
Going to the heart of the matter, he also agreed that it was an
inalienable right of legislators to move No Confidence Motions in the
House, as many UPFA members claimed the No Faiths were gathering dust or
made to gather dust. At present, there are three No Confidence Motions
lying in Parliament, against Ministers John Amaratunga and Ravi
Karunanayake as well as Prime Minister Ranil Wickremsinghe.
However, the Head of State stood firm as he said there should be a
sense of propriety, and political moves such as No Faiths are presented,
they should not be used as tools that might defeat positive moves like
the introduction of a vital constitutional amendment that incorporates
serious electoral reforms, addressing yet another issue that had caused
At the meeting, there was considerable letting out of steam by
members over a number of issues.
Expressing serious disenchantment with the people and the process
involved was Dilan Perera, one of the few new ministers who quit his
portfolio, under protest. He alleged that 160 electorates have been
reduced to 125 without any explanation or further consultation, and
expressed dismay that having spent many weeks working on the proposed
draft, the final document could not be compared to what some of the
senior SLFPers, tasked to draft it, were engaged in. “We could not even
recognize the draft when we saw it and therefore, this is not a
trustworthy exercise,” Perera had reportedly said.
This view found much support and D. E. W. Gunasekera, especially
questioned the Government’s sincerity in wanting to implement the
proposed electoral reforms. “It is all hogwash. The Government is not
sincere in this exercise,” Gunasekera had said.
Moving a fresh argument – but one that resonates extremely well with
his UPFA colleagues was Bandula Gunawardene, a vocal dissenter who
openly leans towards Mahinda Rajapaksa. His grouse was that the new
Government was quick to brand everyone in the former administration as
thieves, even in the absence of any evidence to support such claims.
Gunawardene complained to the President that UPFA members continued to
suffer attacks on their reputation as a political witch-hunt of a new
kind was being implemented, dragging senior politicians through alleged
Adding to this was Keheliya Rambukwella, who also took cudgels with
the UNP –led administration for relishing every opportunity to brand
UPFA members as thieves. “For this Government, everyone is a rogue,” he
Rambukwella also faulted the Government for not being willing to
share the credit of introducing the 19th Amendment, for petty political
gain. He noted with concern that UNP leaders were habitually belittling
the support extended by the UPFA members to make it law, even at a time
when the Government was again looking for numbers to have the 20th
Amendment passed in Parliament. “This is so degrading. Without the UPFA,
the previous amendment would not have seen the light of day,”
However, amidst serious expressions of anger and mistrust, President
Sirisena has prevailed upon everyone present, claiming that as the new
President elected on a mandate of expressed public trust to introduce
sweeping reforms, he was only seeking to fulfil his mandate through the
introduction of amendments that are vital.
Honouring a mandate
The President also tackled another serious concern among the UPFA
members, dispelling the myth about a possible agreement with the UNP to
reappoint Ranil Wickremesinghe as the Prime Minster, after the general
It is learnt that the President has laboriously explained that the
agreement was to appoint Wickrmesinghe for the position after the
January 8 polls, but at no time was there an undertaking to create a UNP
Government after winning the January election. The President has
repeatedly explained, it is learnt, that it was the lack of support from
within his own party and the alliance that resulted in the formation of
a UNP- led Government. “The UPFA members did not wish to accept
portfolios and then, it turned into a UNP Government, by default,” he
had reportedly said.
Seeking to build bridges, President Sirisena has also given an
undertaking to his party leaders that after the general election, the
person who commands the majority in Parliament will be called upon to
form a Government and that there were no foregone conclusions in this
regard. However, it had also been explained that in keeping with his
pledge to the people, he would include opposition members in a future
Government, irrespective of which party secures victory.
“I am the SLFP leader and with the party’s backing, it is possible to
create a UPFA Government if the members pull their weight. Instead of
assisting me to do that, the UPFA members stood by someone else this
time, not by me, overlooking the incumbent leader. I am asking to stand
by me, and help create a UPFA- led Government,” the President has
requested, urging members to desist from supporting destructive and
disruptive elements who are trying to take the country backward.
Readying for polls
While the SLFP remains splintered in two, with different members
identifying themselves with the former leader and the incumbent, the UNP,
once a party besieged by divisions and infighting, appears to have got
its act swiftly to present a more united front, as it lays out plans for
the forthcoming elections in earnest. As such, the UNP has navigated
from its original positional of 225 MPs to a 237-member house.
As the 20th Amendment remains hot, elements within the UPFA, it is
learnt, are preparing to initiate a series of talks with Tamil political
parties, in particular, with the Tamil National Alliance (TNA), to
muster support to vote against the proposed amendment, which is broadly
opposed by minority political parties.
The coming week is likely to prove stormier, by the current turn of