ECONOMYNEXT - President Maithripala Sirisena returned from a state visit to Bangladesh yesterday to grapple with a new threat of defections that could lead to a break-up of his shaky coalition government.
A week after issuing an ultimatum to two ministers to deliver or depart, the President himself has been put on notice by his own Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) which wants him to dissolve the coalition or face a mass exodus.
At a meeting just before leaving for Bangladesh on his three-day state visit, several seniors of the SLFP said they wanted to leave the coalition ahead of local elections later this year unless the President formed an SLFP government before that.
“It was a very heated meeting, and the president said he will discuss this issue on his return from Bangladesh,” a ministerial source at the discussion said. “He does not appear to have many options.”
The SLFP and its allies won 94 seats at the August 2015 elections and the group is deeply split between those loyal to Sirisena and former president Mahinda Rajapaksa.
Even if there is a complete rapprochement between Sirisena and Rajapaksa, they need 19 more MPs to cross the half-way mark in the 225-member parliament and enjoy a majority.
With no other likely candidates to bank on, the unlikely Sirisena-Rajapaksa combine will have to engineer defections from the UNP, a difficult ask despite there being dissatisfied elements within the green party.
An SLFP ministerial source said the President’s July 4 warning to two UNP ministers – Sagala Ratnayake and Wijeyadasa Rajapakshe – to clean up their act within three months had emboldened some SLFP senior to call for action to dismiss the entire UNP government.
They want Sirisena to do to the UNP what president Chandrika Kumaratunga did to Ranil Wickremesinghe’s UNP-led cohabitation government in 2004. Kumaratunga sacked Wickremesinghe’s government just two years into its six-year term and called fresh elections which she won with the support of the JVP.
However, under the 19th amendment to the constitution, President Sirisena cannot dismiss the current parliament until early 2020. Kumaratunga had come to power with her own mandate unlike Sirisena who was propelled largely through UNP votes.
More than a dozen SLFP ministers and deputies have already said they will leave when the two-year national unity government memorandum of understanding ends in September. However, should they carry out their threat, there is no immediate danger to the administration.
The coalition could break up, but the UNP-led government could end up in a stronger position as it will no longer have to balance its economic agenda to appease the ideologically different SLFP.
However, the downside would be the lack of two-thirds majority to push constitutional reforms.
Unlike the SLFP, Prime Minister Wickremesinghe’s UNP, which commands 107 seats in parliament, requires only six more MP’s to ensure an absolute majority. They may be able to tap into the JVP which has six seats and the Tamil National Alliance which has 16.
SLFP sources said their MPs in government were preparing to field their candidates at upcoming local elections, including three provincial councils which must go to the polls by the end of this year.
Not all those who want to defect from the government want to hitch their wagon to the Rajapaksa-led joint opposition either. An SLFP stalwart from Sabaragamuwa said he preferred to remain neutral rather than be seen as supporting the Joint Opposition whose leaders are being hauled up for major corruption.