President vs Prime Minister: Power struggles inside Sri Lanka's coalition government
By Mahak Paliwal
On March 28, amid the day to day unease of coalition government in Sri Lanka, President Maithripala decided to reduce the responsibilities given to Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe. These responsibilities mainly relate to policymaking in the National Operations Room and some other departments, which have been the responsibility of the Prime Minister since 2015. The Securities and Exchange Commission, which was earlier under Wickremesinghe, has now been brought under the purview of the Finance Ministry by the president.
In the poll held last month, Rajapaksa's new political party, the Sri Lanka Peoples Party (SLPP), defeated Sirisena's SLFP and Wickremesinghe's UNP, winning 225 councils. His party won two-thirds of the 340 councils which went to the polls in February. After defeating the coalition government Rajapaksa is likely to be in the lead in the upcoming general election which is scheduled for August 2020. Sirisena seems adamant to remove Wickremesinghe as prime minister. Further, he intends to form his own SLFP government in future. However, if he fails to gain support Sirisena will have to accept Wickremesinghe.
The tension between the two coalition parties has also been mounting due to the repeated attempts being made by Mr Sirisena to extend his presidential term until 2021. The latest move relating to reducing Wickremesinghe's responsibilities comes a week before a debate over a no-confidence motion against the Prime Minister.
Sirisena's and Wickremesinghe's past
The political balance between Maithripala Sirisena and Ranil Wickremesinghe has always been fragile due to the conflicts the two have had in the past, although most of these were relatively minor. The party led by Sirisena joined hands with Wickremesinghe's United National Party (UNP) back in 2005 and have been in power now for nearly a decade. The parties have more often faced conflict over policymaking. The situation worsened last month when the coalition party did not do well in the local government elections.
According to the experts, the ongoing political rivalry is also a result of the Treasury Bonds Scam in which the governor of the Central Bank, Mahendran's son-in-law Arjuna Aloysius Wickremesinghe, was accused of a conflict of interest. Aloysius' firm-Perpetual Treasuries-gained a substantial advantage with the aid of insider information on two bonds issues. A presidential commission of Inquiry is currently probing into the scam.
According to some other sources the bone of contention within the coalition government was also related to Maithripala's "strong request amounting to a demand" wherein he asked for the 'voluntary' resignation of Ranil Wickremesinghe prior to testifying before the Presidential Commission of Inquiry. At the beginning of this year, Maithripala Sirisena accused Wickremesinghe and his party of mismanaging the economy for a long time. "The government needs to improve its policies, programs and actions to serve our people better." Sirisena's office quoted him as saying in a tweet. Economists and other experts have been persistently urging the leaders of the parties in the coalition government to end their passive rivalry.
Future of the coalition government
Political experts are of the opinion that the move by Sri Lankan President Maithripala Sirisena is likely to throw the coalition into disarray. Although the president may be genuinely motivated by an intention to bring growth back to the economy by ending the political chaos, the step will likely have a destabilising effect on the coalition.