Who Has Had the Last Laugh?

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Ironic but true. At the end of Act II, Scene II (if that is what it is), the villain has turned hero, and President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, against whom the whole world seemed to have turned, has proved that he has Parliament on his side. The 119-68 headcount on the combined Opposition motion to suspend the Standing Orders, for the House to take up their ‘censure motion’ against the President showed the Government had more than the 113 required for an absolute majority in the 225-member House.

This outcome also bettered the earlier pro-Government vote to elect Ajith Rajapakse as Deputy Speaker, 109-78 with 23 invalid votes, or those who did not want to be caught ‘abstaining.’ Former Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa and son Namal were absent for the entire day. Unlike the censure motion, the Deputy Speaker’s election did not show an absolute majority for the Government, indicating that more members wanted Gota to continue as President than the Opposition might have assumed.

Parliament’s Standing Orders help fix the House’s schedule. By seeking to have it suspended, the Opposition wanted the ‘censure motion’ against President Gotabaya taken up for debate and vote on an urgent basis. For all this, a censure motion is only to express the ‘displeasure’ of the House. It is different from an impeachment motion with two-thirds majority or 151 votes.

The Opposition strategy was bald. With earlier Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa out of office, the pending No-Confidence Motion (NCM) against the Government – entitled to priority debate and vote – had become infructuous when the House met on Tuesday (17 May). As Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe explained with his years of experience as Parliament, now the ruling SLPP can take the ‘suspension-motion’ route to scuttle future debates on the censure motion, whenever scheduled for vote in the normal course.

Lone outsider

If Ranil had thought of upstaging Gota in his own way by making a public suggestion for a woman Deputy Speaker and thus avoid a contest, it was not to be. Taking him on his word, or to test his equations with President Gota, or to expose his limitations in this ‘unholy alliance of unprecedented convenience,’ the Opposition fielded a woman, Rohini Kavirathna. As if to tell the new Prime Minister on who called the political shots in this hybrid system in which Ranil is still the ‘lone outsider,’ the ruling SLPP fielded Ajith Rajapakse, and he won.

Ranil should have learnt his early lessons. Again unilaterally, or so it seems, he had appointed four of his UNP colleagues to take charge of the ‘shortage-sectors,’ including food, fuel, and medicine. This he did when new Cabinet Ministers were expected to take charge of each of these portfolios, leading to avoidable tension and confusion.

Maybe, the President did not react as sharply to dislodge Ranil’s nominees. Instead, he appointed four new minsters, though not all of them would be taking back the powers of the four Ranil men. Of course, with Parliament’s session set to commence on schedule and the Cabinet expansion expected to be delayed, it made sense for Gota to have more ministers to represent the Government in the House. Of them, Dinesh Gunawardena continues to be the Leader of the House.

Now it looks as if the Gota-Ranil camp did better to take the fizz out of the public protest of the people’s movement at capital Colombo’s Galle Face Green waterfront, rechristened as ‘GotaGoGama,’ or simply G-3. In the midst of the emergency and nation-wide curfew, the Gota Government allowed the protestors to return to the venue after the 9 May attacks on them.

The protestors were still demanding the President’s exit and his Administration was facilitating their return to protest, as if to establish the Government’s democratic credentials for the whole world to see. PM Ranil took the cake – and also the wind out of the protestors’ sail, even more – when he named yet another UNP leader to head a team of officials to ensure a regular supply of food and water and attend to other creature comforts of the protestors, as if they were protesting against some third-nation leader, if not were attending a carnival.

Yet, Gota’s greatest tactical victory was in the way he forced his elder brother and political mentor Mahinda to quit as Prime Minister, making it look voluntary. The popular leader that he was/is Mahinda lacked the strategic skills of Gota, which had gone a long way in helping his government annihilate the dreaded LTTE in its time.

Political historians

Once the dust settles, political historians, for years to come, would be analysing how Gota could do this to Mahinda, and still conclude that it’s what politics is all about. In doing so, they would acknowledge how Gota also managed to turn the Nation’s ire towards Mahinda when he alone was to be held accountable for misadministration on multiple fronts – tax concessions, Chinese organic fertiliser, etc, etc.

By getting all other Rajapaksas, including Mahinda, out of the people’s way, somewhere Gota seemed to have concluded that he would be spared or he could overwhelm popular sentiment through Parliament.  He may have a point, but it needs to be tested, too.

That way, after the 9 May ‘Monday Mayhem,’ especially the unprecedented arsonist attacks on the homes and other properties of 75 ruling party personalities, the Government has the Police and the Security Forces where they should be. As Minister Kanchana Wijesekera recalled for Parliament’s benefit, the attacks on MPs’ homes had commenced as far back as 4 April, and not as ‘retaliatory hits’ on 9 May, when alone ruling party goons targeted the peaceful protestors at Galle Face Green.

It means, the mass protests could continue as long as the protestors wanted to vent their anger in whatever peaceful forms possible. But it should have to and would have to end there – whether or not Gota quits as President, whether or not Ranil continues as Prime Minister, early elections or not!

About the writer:

The writer is a Policy Analyst and Commentator, based in Chennai, India. Email: [email protected]

By N. Sathiya Moorthy