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Rambukwella Survives NCM, SLFP in Turmoil as Jayasekara Sacked

The week that ended threw up several politically significant events, some of them predictable as noted in these columns previously and another- the sacking of Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) General Secretary Dayasiri Jayasekara by party leader Maithripala Sirisena- coming as a total surprise.

Competing for the headlines during the week that just ended was, on the one hand, the No Confidence Motion (NCM) against Health Minister Keheliya Rambukwella. On the other hand, a documentary on the 2019 Easter terror attacks aired by Britain’s Channel 4 network also generated much controversy.
As predicted, the NCM against Minister Rambukwella fizzled out, the Minister surviving the vote by a comfortable margin of 40 votes. That he polled 113 votes is significant. It demonstrates that the Government still commands a simple majority in Parliament despite opposition claims that it does not.

Equally significant was the fact that 38 parliamentarians did not vote. Many of them were members of the ruling Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP) who are presently ambivalent about their political future and debating whether to stick with the party they were elected from or shift allegiances.

What is striking is that, while these MPs are sensitive to public sentiment at grassroots level and are hesitant to publicly defend the government on sensitive issues such as the ongoing crisis in the health sector, they are equally, if not more, wary about taking a firm decision to support the Opposition.

This is a reflection of the current state of political flux the country is in. It is a radical change from the two-party system that prevailed for decades. In the past few years this too changed with the United National Party (UNP) and the SLFP declining in popularity and losing their stranglehold on power.

A majority of the SLFP broke away to form the SLPP. A majority of the UNP broke away to form the Samagi Jana Balavegaya (SJB). The SLPP defeated the SJB at the last General Election to form a Government. Now however, both the SLPP and to a lesser extent the SJB have dissident factions.

Add to this mix the fact that the UNP is having a resurgence of its fortunes because its leader Ranil Wickremesinghe is President. This is a perfect recipe for alliances to form and these are emerging at considerable speed. What this has done is to ensure that no one party has a clear advantage.

Viewed in this light, Minister Rambukwella being able to muster 113 votes amounting to a simple majority in Parliament is creditable. Nevertheless, there is still speculation that there could be a Cabinet reshuffle effected by President Wickremesinghe where he can be handed a different portfolio.

If President Wickremesinghe were to indeed do so, it would be a political masterstroke. By not removing Minister Rambukwella prior to the NCM and in fact actively calling on all parliamentarians to support him by cancelling their overseas leave, he demonstrated that he will stand by his ministers.

If Minister Rambukwella is shifted after having survived the NCM, President Wickremesinghe will be perceived by the public as being sensitive to issues confronting them in their daily lives. Minister Rambukwella will also avoid a loss of face while at the same time being assigned a different ministry.

At this point in time, it is uncertain whether this change will materialise, such is variability of the political environment. However, if it were to happen, three other medical professionals- Dr. Rajitha Senaratne, Dr. Sudarshini Fernandopulle and Dr. Ramesh Pathirana- will be in contention.

Meanwhile, the controversy over the Channel 4 documentary regarding the 2019 Easter attacks continues to generate heated debate. The programme alleges that Sri Lankan Military officials with links to former President Gotabaya Rajapaksa orchestrated the attacks to gain a political advantage.

Both former President Rajapaksa, the official alleged to be implicated in this, Director of Military Intelligence Suresh Sally and the Sri Lankan Ministry of Defence have issued strong rebuttals of the content in the documentary, pointing to several factual inaccuracies contained in the program.

The collective opposition has however predictably latched on to the allegations in the video and are accusing those allegedly involved. In a political climate where no political party appears to have a clear-cut advantage and with major elections due next year, such accusations are only to be expected.

These allegations should not affect the Government per se. That is because the present Government is headed by President Wickremesinghe who was Prime Minister at the time of the attacks and also because there are no members of the Rajapaksa family in active roles in the present Cabinet.

Nevertheless, it is understood that, in the interests of justice and in deference to requests from the Catholic Church, President Wickremesinghe will possibly direct two inquiries into the attacks: one headed by a retired superior Court Judge and another through a Parliamentary Select Committee.

There have been several inquiries already into the Easter attacks. Former President Maithripala Sirisena appointed a Committee of Inquiry and a Special Presidential Commission. A Parliamentary Select Committee probed the issue as well. The Supreme Court also heard a fundamental rights case.

At the time of these inquiries, the allegations made in the Channel 4 documentary hadn’t surfaced. The new inquiries will therefore add a fresh dimension to the investigation but it is also likely that they will be time consuming and are unlikely to be completed before the national polls due next year.

In such a context, the material contained in the documentary will provide ammunition for the opposition to attack the leadership of the SLPP. Such accusations will certainly not enhance the popularity of the party at the grassroots level about which there are already major concerns.

In the final reckoning, the verdict on the credibility of the Channel 4 documentary will be determined in the court of public opinion. Whether it will have an impact on the vote base of the SLPP, and if it does, whether that impact will be numerically significant, remains to be seen.

The other issue that took political observers by surprise last week was the sudden sacking of SLFP General Secretary Dayasiri Jayasekara by party leader Maithripala Sirisena. That there were differences of opinion between the two was well known but still, the sacking came as a shock.

Speaking to the media afterwards, a visibly emotional Jayasekara was at a loss for words. Jayasekara said he treated the former President with the respect accorded to his father and asked, ‘do father’s slit the necks of their sons?’. This move is the culmination of a power struggle in the SLFP.

It stems from a decision by Jayasekara and a group of others to advocate for disciplinary action against the faction led by Ministers Nimal Siripala de Silva and Mahinda Amaraweera who defied a party decision and joined the Government, obtaining Cabinet portfolios in the process.

While the SLFP endorsed such action, it bungled in implementing it. That led to De Silva and others challenging the action in Court. The courts upheld their plea, staying disciplinary action. Meanwhile, Sirisena was facing potential sanctions and fines arising from cases related to the Easter attacks.

Observers feel this compelled Sirisena to take the path of least resistance: he invited De Silva, Amaraweera and others who joined the Government back into the fold, leaving room for himself to work out a secure political future for himself. Jayasekara remained opposed to this and was sacked.

Historically, the SLFP has had a history of internal disputes, dating back to when Sirima Bandaranaike lost her civic rights and the party split into factions led by Ms. Bandaranaike and Maithripala Senanayake. Even the Bandaranaike siblings Chandrika and Anura had serious disputes.

That was when the SLFP was still one of the two major parties in the country and still perceived by the public as an alternative Government. The party has now definitely ceded that role and its leader Sirisena has not been able to utilise the decline in the SLPP’s popularity to the SLFP’s advantage.

In this scenario, the events of last week could well be the final nail in the SLFP’s political coffin. Jayasekara, a likeable and popular politician is likely to be snapped by another opposition party, most likely the SJB, where he enjoys a good working relationship with party leader Sajith Premadasa.

It is therefore highly likely that the political events that transpired last week – the NCM against Minister Rambukwella, the airing of the Channel 4 documentary and the sacking of Dayasiri Jayasekara – will have flow on effects that will impact the political landscape in the months to come.