SLFP, UNP avert split, plan reshuffle
COLOMBO, FEBRUARY 14, 2018 23:07 IST
FEBRUARY 15, 2018
Sri Lankan Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe (left) and President Maithripala Sirisena.
Both parties trying to garner numbers
Sri Lankan President Maithripala Sirisena and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe have agreed to reshuffle the Cabinet, ending days of uncertainty over their coalition government’s future after a recent local poll debacle.
The two leaders met late on Wednesday night. The discussions were “positive”, according to a top source present at the meeting. The source refused to share further details. Neither of the leaders has made known his position after the meeting.
Party sources said they were not aware of the specifics of the said Cabinet reshuffle, but saw the late-night talks as an attempt to save the unity government that, earlier in the evening, seemed to be on the verge of a split.
The development came on a day of hectic backroom negotiations among legislators, with members of the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) and the United National Party (UNP) staking separate claims to a possible parliamentary majority.
Letter to Sirisena
On Wednesday evening, senior leaders in President Sirisena’s SLFP formally wrote to him expressing their desire to form the government. If either party succeeds in its attempt, the move will effectively bring down the country’s first national unity government that the two traditional rivals formed in 2015, ousting former President Mahinda Rajapaksa.
Differences within the alliance grew rapidly over the last few days, especially after SLFP members demanded that Prime Minister Wickremesinghe, who leads the UNP, resign while taking responsibility for the defeat in the local elections.
With pressure mounting on their leader, many within the UNP — the senior coalition partner — were keen to break off the coalition and form a UNP government. The party needs seven more seats in Parliament to raise its 106-member strength to a simple majority in the 225-member House.
Posing a counter-challenge on Wednesday, the SLFP began reaching out to legislators on all sides, The Hindu learns. “We proposed to the President that our party is capable of getting the required number in Parliament. We must somehow get rid of the Prime Minister and form a government with one of our own as PM,” a senior SLFP Minister told The Hindu, on condition of anonymity. According to him, President Sirisena had given a go-ahead for their efforts. The UNP has not responded to the development so far.
With 43 seats in Parliament, the SLFP has little option but to reach out to the Rajapaksa support block that has 52 seats, in addition to seeking support of the minority parties. The front needs another 18 seats for a simple majority.
Trouble has been brewing since the SLFP and the UNP decided to contest the February 10 local government elections separately. The two parties were squarely defeated by the Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP), or Sri Lanka People’s Front, a new party backed by Mr. Rajapaksa, who is still a member of a rival, dissident faction of the SLFP that sits in the Opposition.
It is unclear if Mr. Sirisena will work with his former boss Mr. Rajapaksa in a new alliance. From the time Mr. Sirisena partnered Mr. Wickremesinghe and led an eclectic Opposition alliance to victory in January 2015, unseating Mr. Rajapaksa, his relationship with Mr. Rajapaksa has remained rather tense.
However, the recent developments foretell a significant realignment of political forces in the country.
Following three days of deadlocked talks between the two parties, a committee was set up on Tuesday night to come up with possible “reform proposals”. Though some speculated that the matter might come up for discussion at Wednesday’s weekly Cabinet meeting, it turned out a “routine affair”, sources told The Hindu. Mr. Sirisena is expected to make a statement on the future of the coalition before Friday, they said.
Following the political instability after local elections, the Sri Lankan rupee on Wednesday hit a record low, Reuters reported. The rupee, which traded at 155.90 during the day, ended at 155.40/50 against the dollar, the report said.