Ranil Wickremesinghe (left), Gotabaya Rajapaksa (right)
Churn in Sri Lanka

As Rival Camps Meet, Is Sri Lanka Headed For Snap Polls?

Nitin A Gokhale New Delhi, India 2 November 2018

Exactly a week after Sri Lanka witnessed an unexpected political development with President Maithripala Sirisena suddenly appointing Mahinda Rajapaksa as Prime Minister in place of Ranil Wickremesinghe, both the camps now seem veering towards agreeing for an early election to Parliament, sources in the Rajapaksa and Wickremesinghe camps have confirmed.

Irrespective of who wins the trust vote in Parliament when it reconvenes (there are conflicting reports on the dates; some reports mention November 5, some others now talk of November 7), none of the contending parties is in a position to provide a stable government, both camps feel.

At a meeting on Thursday between ousted Prime Minister Wickremesinghe and Gotabaya Rajapaksa, new Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa’s brother and confidante, both apparently discussed the way forward for Sri Lanka and agreed that the best possible solution would be to go to the people and seek a fresh mandate, sources privy to the discussions at the meeting revealed. Gotabaya Rajapaksa, who was defence secretary between 2005 and 2014 and the man largely credited with planning and executing the military campaign that defeated the Tamil Tigers, is reported to have pointed out to Wickremesinghe that only a fresh mandate will resolve the current impasse, sources in both camps confirmed. The former Prime Minister apparently agreed with this assessment but asked for more time to decide his next step.

Amidst charges and counter- charges of large sums of money exchanging hands for garnering adequate numbers to win the trust vote, both sides are aware that the majority for the winning side will be fragile and can be overturned since Sri Lanka does not have an anti-defection law that can prevent lawmakers from changing sides. As of now, the Rajapaksa camp is reported to have 103 Members of Parliament (MPs) on its side while the Wickremesinghe group is reported to have 100 Parliamentarians supporting it. The stand taken by 16 MPs of the Tamil National Alliance (TNA) and the leftist JVP with six MPs besides two Muslim MPs will hold the key to the trust vote whenever it takes place in the 225-member Parliament.

Incidentally, diplomats and Track II interlocutors who watch Sri Lanka closely agree that the current political turmoil is not of the Rajapaksas’ doing. “President Sirisena and Wickremesinghe had grown far apart in the past few months and it was Sirisena who precipitated the current crisis. The Rajapakasas, sensing their chance, have simply taken advantage of the political situation, as anyone in this game would do,” a long-time Sri Lanka observer pointed out, not wishing to be identified.

Meanwhile, a bloc of Western nations led by the United States and some Scandinavian countries are uneasy about the return of the Rajapaksas to the centrestage of Sri Lanka’s politics. They feel the initial decision by Sirisena to suspend Parliament until November 16 was designed to help the Rajapaksas. Sirisena’s supporters, however, point out that almost every President in Sri Lanka has used this power during their respective tenures.

India, on the other hand, has chosen to issue just one, standard statement, asking everyone to ‘respect democratic values and constitutional process’. Both the contending parties in Sri Lanka have tried to reach out to India through Track II channels and seek support. What official stand New Delhi eventually takes is not known but if both the groups come round to the view that fresh elections are the best way forward, India may not be averse to supporting the idea.

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