Joint Opposition makes PM the nation’s new Avurudu Kumaraya

Ten days before the dawn of the Sinhala and Hindu New Year, the Mahinda Rajapaksa-led Joint Opposition gave Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe their New Year gift to him well in advance. They made him the nation’s new Avurudu Kumaraya, the new New Year Prince of Lanka, albeit unwittingly.

Last week on Easter Sunday they had planned to crucify him on the cross of the no-confidence motion they had presented to parliament last month and which was taken up for debate and vote this Wednesday, April 4. At 10 pm that night, when the Speaker of the House announced the result after a marathon 12-hour debate, it became apparent that the joint opposition had come a cropper, made a major blunder. They had schemed to destroy the prime minister with this explosive motion and thereafter demolish the Government. Instead, it had boomeranged and blown up in their faces.

Ranil Wickremesinghe had won handsomely: By a majority of 46 votes. Out of a Parliament consisting of 225 members, excluding the Speaker, 122 MPs had expressed confidence in him while only 76 had voted no. Another 26 had sat on the fence and had desisted from stating whether they had confidence in the prime minister or not, simply by scooting from the chamber when the vote was taken. The final tally: 148, including the 26 who were conspicuous by their absence, who did not vote for the no-confidence motion, against 76 who did.

A major reversal of fortune for the joint opposition. And a tremendous triumph and boost for the UNP and its leader Ranil. From the ashes of the joint opposition’s no-confidence motion, from their rash bid to see Ranil’s premature demise, the prime minister rose, like the Phoenix, resurrected: his party rejuvenated.

If not for that blessing in disguise, which the joint opposition bestowed upon him by bringing the no-confidence motion, his political career would have seen an early grave. But JO made soar his flagging popularity not only in the country but within his own party – with young Turks in the fold braying for his blood and conspiring to topple his Chuda Manikya from Sri Kotha’s pinnacle.

For the last two weeks, there had been nothing else on the nation’s lips than the no-confidence motion against Ranil. It dominated the media. It was the conversation in millions of homes. The talk on the streets. The babble in buses, the chatter in taverns and the rant of politicians of many a hue on television’s news and chat shows.

Unbeknown to Ranil himself, unbeknown to the Joint Opposition themselves, Ranil had become a national obsession. The sole focus of the nation. The man of the moment. The talk of the town. As they say in show business, there is nothing called bad publicity. He was turned into a sort of mega star, with the nation’s pulse palpitating as to his fate. Many predicted his end. Some prayed for an eleventh hour miracle. But none dreamt his triumph would be a walk over or envisaged his victory would be on such a mega scale.

It was a motion doomed from the start. Stillborn even before it was presented to Parliament. The numbers were simply not there to win it. Even if all the SLFP and Joint Opposition members were to vote they would only garner 95 votes. Even if the JVP were to join in with their six, the number would still be 101. Whereas the UNP had 106. And the TNA had another 16 and it was unlikely that the TNA would throw in their lot with the Rajapaksa’s and throw Ranil out.

But the cocky Joint Opposition pressed ahead, confident they would get their numbers with some UNP dissidents making the Rubicon crossing to oust Ranil from not merely his premiership but also from the UNP leadership. Many boasts were made. While MP Udaya Gammanpila claimed they were confident that 22 UNP members would support the motion, former President Mahinda Rajapaksa said that many Ministers had expressed willingness to support the proposed no-confidence motion against Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe. “They are close to the Prime Minister,” he said and expressed confidence that the no-confidence motion would succeed. “He will be toppled. He will have to go soon.”

But behind the brag, even though the Joint Opposition may have had secret doubts of the motion succeeding, the ulterior motive in the whole exercise was to create a leadership crisis in the UNP. To send the well-known racehorse to the knackers’ yard and force the UNP stables to field a foal come 2020 poll.

BLESSING IN DISGUISE: After beginning D-Day with a an early morning visit to the Gangaramaya temple with his wife Maithree to offer flowers to the Buddha and seek the blessings of the Noble Triple Gem and the Gods, Ranil and Maithree wrapped up the triumphant night attending a Bodhi pooja at the same temple

As the SUNDAY PUNCH commented on March 25: “Therein perhaps lies the secret of the Joint Opposition strategy. Already they have succeeded in breaking up the SLFP and the UPFA whilst still professing to be members of the SLFP and the UPFA of which the SLFP is the major constituent. Of the UPFA’s 95 MPs in Parliament today, they have successfully kraaled the majority to their camp. They have broken the backbone of Sirisena and left him forlorn and alone in the wilderness, surrounded by a minority whose trust and loyalty to him can no longer be guaranteed. In fact, it never was from day one. Now it’s the turn of the UNP. Most probably, the no-confidence motion would turn out to be a puswedilla. But behind the damp squib, a cracker has already been lit to render the UNP aflame with dissension.

“In a way, the Joint Opposition’s no-confidence motion could not have come at a better time to shake the UNP hierarchy from its slumber. In fact, it may have been a blessing in disguise. A favour from the foe. For the UNP to get its act together. Before it’s too late.”And what a favour it has been. The Joint Opposition has lifted Ranil from the doldrums, turned him from a lame duck to a savvy swan, placed him on the pedestal of triumph and strengthened his hand to a degree none thought possible a week ago.

Of course, the Joint Opposition to cover up their embarrassment pretend not to think so. In the aftermath of their failed bid, they declared to the media that it was not defeat but a clear outstanding victory for the Joint Opposition. . Mahinda Rajapaksa, the chief architect of the no-confidence motion, painted the motion’s defeat as a victory. Speaking to journalists outside the Parliament Chamber, he said the result would have been changed if all SLFP MPs voted in favour of the motion. He passed the buck to President Sirisena’s table for the defeat and said that “if the President was there with us we would have won it. Then the result would have been different’, but failed to explain how, even if the entire SLFP MPs had joined forces with the Joint Opposition he led and voted for the no-confidence motion, they could not have still gained the magic 113 number to win it when the UNP commanded 106 seats plus TNA’s 16 seats.

“First we had only 54 votes. However, this was increased to 76 during the vote,” he said, having gained the consolation prize of splitting Sirisena’s SLFP by half. His disciples soon followed suit to parrot the same spin and hail their defeat as victory. Wimal Weerawansa, for instance, said that the defeat of the no-confidence motion was three times a victory. He said echoing the words of his master’s voice: “It has divided the SLFP and now we have not 51 members but 76 on our side. It has created a leadership crisis in the UNP and very soon the dissent brewing in the UNP will spill over and thirdly the Government has lost its two-thirds majority in Parliament.”

Dinesh Gunawardena, the parliamentary leader of the Joint Opposition, who two weeks ago had said the no-confidence motion would create a crisis for the Government, failed to realise that it was the joint opposition and the SLFP that were in the cauldron of crisis. His main claim to gaining victory in defeat was to say that the Government, having lost its two-thirds majority in Parliament may now find it difficult to pass certain legislation that required a two-thirds majority.

He said:” the no-confidence motion had triggered a huge crisis in the Government where it would lose its two-thirds majority in Parliament. This would create issues for the government when enacting certain Acts and Bills.”

Perhaps he was right on that score. This week the Supreme Court ruled that certain clauses in the new Judicature Bill that had been presented in Parliament to set up a new court system that will fast track corruption cases and expedite the process of bringing the corrupt to justice was inconsistent with the constitution. The Court proposed eight amendments to it or that a two-thirds majority in Parliament will be necessary to enact it.

So at least for now, in this volatile state, it appears that the establishment of courts to bring the Rajapaksa regime rogues to justice will be put on hold.
He also said that for the first time in history, some ministers in the Cabinet had voted against the Prime Minister. “A group in the Government voted in favour of the no-confidence motion presented by us. The Prime Minister no longer has the majority support in the Government.”

But hasn’t the PM the majority support in the House? Can’t Dinesh count? Doesn’t 122 out of 224 give Ranil majority support? And isn’t that what counts? The no-confidence motion was brought to declare that the House no longer had confidence in the prime minister. Not to determine whether SLFP cabinet ministers had confidence in him or not.

In their mad scramble to justify their ignominious defeat, the Joint Opposition seem to have lost their marbles and in their rout have the audacity to proclaim victory. But though that’s the message they want the public to believe in, in their heart of hearts, they surely know that they achieved for Ranil what Ranil could not have achieved for himself.

Consider the following:
The Constitution says that the President shall appoint a Member of Parliament who, in his opinion, commands the confidence of the majority of members of Parliament.

If there was even an iota of doubt whether Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe, commanded the confidence of the majority of the House or not, any such doubt, as there may well have been, was laid to rest once and for all when the issue was, courtesy of the Joint Opposition, put to the test this Wednesday.

And, with members voting 122 reposing confidence in him as against 76 voting otherwise, it was established beyond all doubt that the majority of the House did indeed have confidence in him.

Last month there was speculation whether the President, after having appointed a prime minister according to the power vested in him under the constitution, has the constitutional power to sack him. But this question has now become academic. For the defeat of the joint opposition motion of no-confidence in Ranil has proved that he does indeed have the confidence of the House, and that, too, not in any small measure but with a majority of 46.

The final result of the Joint Opposition’s no-confidence motion has today made Ranil Wickremesinghe’s position as Prime Minister unassailable. Even the President, whatever his constitutional right may be, cannot even contemplate his removal from that office. For the first time under the present 40-year constitution, Parliament’s confidence in a prime minister has been tested. Ranil Wickremesinghe’s steel has been subjected to go through the furnace and it had withstood the test and emerged with his mettle strengthened.

The no-confidence motion also served to unite the UNP. All of its members expressed their confidence in their leader. Even those who had been stripped of their ministerial portfolios answered the call to follow their leader. The unity displayed won the party victory and served to boost its morale.

The no-confidence motion, much to the Joint Opposition’s chagrin also provided prime time TV nationwide platform for UNP big guns to fire their salvos against the corruption of the Rajapaksa regime. Ministers Rajitha Senaratne, Sarath Fonseka and others made good use of the opportunity to launch scathing attacks on the Rajapaksas and condemned the mega corruption which, they alleged, took place during their years in power.

Now let’s turn to the raison d’être, the reason on which the no-confidence motion against the Prime Minister was based. Out of the 14 listed in the charge seat, 12 revolved around the bond scam.

The first charge from which the rest descended was that Ranil Wickremesinghe had “placed the Finance Ministry under his purview with the intention of committing the bond scam. And the second was that he had appointed Singaporean Arjuna Mahendran to the post of Governor of the Central Bank, directly involved in the Treasury bond scams.’

But didn’t the Joint Opposition when they made those charges realise that the Prime Minister has no power to bring the Finance Ministry or the Central Bank under his purview. That the power to do so lies solely in the hands of the President. And no one else.

Consider the legal position as stated in last week’s SUNDAY PUNCH:
“Under article 43(2) the President shall on the advice of the prime minister appoint ministers, under Article 43(3) he does not need to consult the prime minister if he wants to reshuffle his cabinet pack thereafter and wishes to make a Jack a King or a Queen a Knave or the Joker the Ace.

“When it comes to the appointment of state ministers or deputy ministers the same applies. He shall do so on the advice of the prime minister. But when it comes to determining their assignments and functions to Ministers, he may do so in consultation with the prime minister, only if he thinks such consultation is necessary.”

It’s clear that even if Ranil had suggested to the President to transfer the Central Bank to his purview, President Sirisena was under no legal duty to assent. Thus the legal responsibility is the president’s alone. And it lies at his door.

Secondly: the case of appointing Arjun Mahendran as the Central Bank Governor. Again Ranil Wickremesinghe may have recommended the appointment. But who alone, under the Constitution has the legal power to appoint the Governor of the Central Bank? Again, under the Constitution, the president, not the prime minister. Thus was an impeachment attempt against the President brought before Parliament disguised as a no-confidence motion against the prime minister? And thus did those SLFP ministers and MPs who voted for the no-confidence motion do so without realising that it was one targeted against their leader, Maithripala Sirisena?

After the no-confidence result had been announced, SLFP Minister Susil Premajayantha told television journalists that he voted for the motion because he is a representative of the people. But he is not the only one who is a representative of the masses. All 225 MPs are. And proudly claim to be so. And 122 of the people’s representatives voted in favour of Ranil.

But if the purpose of the Joint Opposition was to nail the bond scam on the Prime Minister’s chest, didn’t the outcome serve to cleanse him of its stain? Already the Presidential Bond Commission, before which the Prime Minister appeared and gave evidence as to his role, had exonerated him of any involvement with the bond scam.

This Wednesday when the majority of Parliamentary members — representative of the sovereign people of Lanka — expressed their confidence in the Prime Minister and voted against the no-confidence motion which was mainly based on his involvement with the bond scam, didn’t Parliament endorse the Presidential Bond Commission’s view and further exonerate him of the scandalous charges levelled against him?

No wonder Ranil Wickremesinghe must be grateful to his sworn foes for bringing against him a no-confidence motion, for it provided him with the opportunity to have the nation’s representatives express their confidence in him that, no matter, what calumnies his political enemies hurled at him, a great majority of the people’s representatives believed in his innocence.

But even as he must have thanked his lucky stars for surviving the challenge against his premiership of the country and his leadership of his party, even as he must have celebrated his Wednesday night triumph, he should not fail to contemplate this Sunday morning that even a cat has only nine lives. And that, if he fails to raise his own sword and crackdown on corruption; if he neglects to carry out the mandate the people gave to the government in 2015, there may never be for him another life left to lose. He would have squandered all nine.

Ranil must stand firm or fall
Not that it matters now — now that the Prime Minister has emerged triumphant from his parliamentary ordeal of a no-confidence motion.
But don’t you wonder why the President didn’t urge his SLFP ministers and members to vote against the no-confidence motion brought against his prime minister, his coalition partner, the one without whose support he would never have become president, the one to whom he has repeatedly said he owes buckets of gratitude for installing him in the presidential suite?Why didn’t the President lend a helping hand to save his comrade in power when he was in danger of drowning? Why did he instead wash his hands of and look askance and tell his SLFP ministers and members to vote as they please without strongly urging them to throw the life line, hurl the rubber tube, even lower the life boat and row to answer the premier’s SOS call?

According to Ports and Shipping Minister Mahinda Samarasinghe the 16 SLFP members in the Government voted for the motion on their own volition. He said, ‘President Sirisena never instructed anyone to vote in favour of the motion, against it or abstain from voting in Parliament.”
Be that as it may, 16 SLFP members voted to declare that they do not have any confidence in the prime minister. Of course, the Prime Minister is not the head of cabinet. That role belongs to the President. But the PM is still traditionally regarded as the first amongst equals in a cabinet of ministers headed by the President. Thus to vote against him must amount to almost a capital offence.

In such a situation, either the Prime Minister must go or the renegade ministers must go. But just having won the confidence of Parliament’s majority MPs, there exists no reason why the prime minister should resign. It’s the gang of ministers who should resign for their position has now become untenable.

Of course, the Prime Minister has no power to dismiss them. That lies with the President. But according to reports the President has assured the rebel ministers that there is no reason why they should resign or be sacked.

On Friday, however, the President announced that a ‘comprehensive’ cabinet reshuffle would take place soon. Good. He also announced said a committee from both parties in the Government would be appointed to decide on the reshuffle. But whatever the committee recommends it should not be forgotten that, under the 19th Amendment, the President can appoint new ministers only on the advice of the Prime Minister and not on some recommendation made by some committee.

In the meantime, Ranil Wickremesinghe, strengthened as he is now with the triumph the Joint Opposition provided him with, should assert his position. He must be firm or he will fall. If the President is unwilling to sack the dissident SLFP ministers, the UNP must bring a motion of no-confidence to get rid of them.

Ranil may like to appear as one who is as sharp as the serpent and harmless as the dove. But in politics and in leadership there are times when ruthlessness is called for. If he does not demonstrate strong leadership, then no matter that he walks tall today holding all the cards in his hands, the bells will soon toll for him.

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