Simmering tensions within Sri Lanka’s governing coalition came to a head in parliament Thursday with Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe’s party firing what it called the first salvo against the President.
Two backbenchers from the United National Party (UNP) blamed President Maithripala Sirisena’s faction of the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) for delaying local council elections.
UNP MP Kavinda Jayawardena, the son of UNP stalwart, the late Dr. Jayalath Jayawardena, blamed Local Government minister Faiszer Musthapha for a fiasco in drawing electoral boundaries that has held up the vote.
Sri Lanka’s court of appeal effectively suspended the local council vote due for some time in late January by issuing an interim stay order against Musthapha’s gazette carving out the councils.
Musthapha was also accused of delaying tactics and deliberately issuing a gazette with legal issues in order to put off the elections.
“We have set an example with our (UNP) ministers stepping down when allegations were made against them. It is up to minister Musthapha also to resign,” Jayawardena said in parliament.
He said Thursday’s outburst against the delaying of elections was the UNP’s first salvo. “This is the start, we shall fire more guns unless we get the elections our people want,” he said.
There had been tensions between the President and the government over several issues, including the arrest of several high profile members of the former regime, economic policy and the appointment of key personnel.
Another UNP backbencher, Thushara Indunil said the UNP should not have to take the blame for delaying the elections. Even the parliamentary election was not held soon after the end of the 100-day government to help President Sirisena consolidate his hold on the SLFP and it had cost the UNP several seats, he said.
“The local government election is delayed hoping that the President’s section can cut a deal with the Pohottuwa (bud – the symbol of a new party created for Mahinda Rajapaksa’s faction of the SLFP),” he said.
Indunil said the UNP will no longer tolerate the delay of elections and the UNP backbenchers were wearing black bands to parliament Thursday as a sign of protest against holding up the local vote.
“Our party leaders wanted us to remove the black bands and we complied,” he said. “But, we want to tell our leadership also that we should not be held responsible for this delay.”
Last month, the Prime Minister too had pressed for holding the much delayed local council elections.
The election due in mid-2015 was delayed because the previous administration had failed to complete legislation to conduct local government polls under a hybrid system replacing proportional representation.
However, the new government too dragged its feet in demarcating electoral boundaries in line with the new law. The delay was a blessing for President Sirisena. It gave him more time to tighten his grip on his party.
The Mahinda Rajapaksa-led JO, a formidable faction of Sirisena’s SLFP, had hoped that three provincial councils will go to the polls before smaller local councils, giving them the opportunity for a good showing.
The North-Central and Sabaragamuwa councils, which completed their five-year terms in October and in late September respectively, were seen as favourable to the JO.
The term of the Eastern Provincial Council also expired in September setting the stage for PC elections ahead of the local government (LG) vote. But, changing the voting system for PC elections too means a delay in that poll that will now follow the local government election.
UNP backbenchers said they were conscious that their popularity had waned since forming a government in January 2015, but insisted that further delays could be suicidal.