Harim Peiris

Political and Reconciliation perspectives from Sri Lanka

  • March 2022
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Divided govt. loses its two-thirds majority

Posted by harimpeiris on March 11, 2022

By Harim Peiris

(Published in the Island & Groundviews on 10th March 2022)

Last week witnessed the coming to the fore of the deep divisions within the governing alliance as President Gotabaya Rajapaksa sacked two Cabinet Ministers, Wimal Weerawansa and Udaya Gammanpilla, and laid bare the internal disquiet and dissent within the Government, which had been brewing for quite a while. Concurrently, the 11other minor political party allies of the government also essentially parted ways, Minister Vasudeva Nanayakkara stating that he will neither attend cabinet meetings nor go to his ministry and the other parties also vowing that their common political journey with the Rajapaksa and the SLPP is all but over. The government’s intraparty relationships have ruptured and this brief analysis will examine some of the important ensuing political ramifications.

1. Political economy at stake

Watching the current situation unfold from the spectator stands, as it were, one gets a strange sense of deja vu. A populist president, elected with an overwhelming mandate so mismanages the economy that even his own constituency of the majority ethnoreligious community comes to accept that their interests are just not served through the combination of poor governance, weak economic management, but very large doses of ethnonationalism, disguised as patriotism. The classic formulae for regime change are a divided government and a united opposition. When the government splits, the opposition just sniffing political blood makes the extra effort to unite. No, not just in the present but a very similar scenario existed in 2014. Earlier, the departure of the then JHU, from the administration of Mahinda Rajapaksa was the first very public rupture in it. In the present administration, the departure of Wimal Weerawansa and Udaya Gammanpilla, signals the same rupture.

2. Rajapaksas rid themselves of majoritarian nationalist spokesmen

Incidentally, during both Rajapaksa administrations, the break came from its right-wing, as Sinhala nationalists, who explored the non-existent political space of being more ethno-nationalist than the ruling Rajapaksas, were forced to make their exit. On both occasions, the exit preceded or coincided with the rise of other non-party political organisations pushing an anti-minority, especially anti-Muslim agenda. In 2011/12, the effort was on the part of the civil society, NGO space and of course in the current dispensation the same personality heading an innoxiously named presidential task force is more clearly positioned within the state. But what this rupture does is quite politically significant. The near-monopoly of the Sinhala nationalist vote and uniting it for a political victory, as President Gotabaya correctly claimed during his presidential victory speech at Anuradhapura has, in less than three years, come apart. Mainstream media claim that the President, Prime Minister and Finance Minister were not unanimous in their decision to sack the duo. While the Rajapakses and the SLPP certainly command more support than Wimal’s NFF and Udaya’s PHU, the duo will cause more political damage as regime dissidents than any assistance they gave as regime supporters. Fighting with your allies is political suicide. Look at Maithripala Sirisena and Ranil Wickremesinghe. Their infighting and disunity ended their administration and their political careers at the apex.

3. Divided government loses supermajority and causes are economic

The rupture within the Government has also effectively eliminated the Government’s two-thirds majority in Parliament. The number of minority MPs it can buy over are now limited, having effectively emptied the shelves, or rather the benches, right after the general elections, so that option does not compensate for breaking with its allies. Various routine, non-controversial bills may pass with large majorities, but the SLPP administration does not have the political clout or ability to push through its will.

A recent Verite Research poll put the government’s approval rating at about 10%. An entirely believable number, given the complete collapse of public services brought on by purely ruinous policies. Very similar, in fact, to the SLFP’s economic mismanagement of 1970-77, but this is worse and the people’s expectations and aspirations are higher, so the political price to pay and the vengeance of the electorate at the polls will be severe. Governments don’t lose public support over a fuel shortage but bring about a continuous combination of gas, milk powder, diesel, raw materials and foreign exchange shortages and five-to-seven-hours-a-day power cuts, combined with soaring inflation, rising unemployment, declining agricultural yields and collapsing rural incomes due to the government’s fertiliser fiasco, and the SLPP will experience at the polls, what the UNP did in 2020, its effective elimination.

This brings us to the relatively new alternative government of Opposition Leader Sajith Premadasa and his Samagi Jana Balawegaya (SJB). The SJB has not been quite as inactive as is made out to be, by the same media which downplayed the government’s long-running divisions, till it exploded. The SJB has been doing a series of pocket meeting type gatherings within COVID-19 prevention guidelines, perhaps prompting the Governing party’s Anuradhapura rally and Sajith has been drawing increasing crowds. A recent political cartoon in a leading daily broadsheet was quite telling, it showed a picture of a sinking ship and rats jumping ship, with the faces of the eleven leaders of the political parties, which broke with the Government, superimposed on the rats. The proverbial rats deserting the sinking ship. The issue though is that the ship is sinking. It is necessary to ensure that the country doesn’t go down with them.

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