ECONOMYNEXT – Fault lines in Sri Lanka’s ruling alliance appear to be widening, with former president and Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) leader Maithripala Sirisena openly accusing Agriculture Minister Mahindanana Aluthgamage of hurting the government’s popularity through a controversial and now lifted ban on chemical fertilizer.
The government on Wednesday (24) revoked a gazette that had banned the import of chemical fertilizer and other agrochemicals. The ban had triggered countless protests from farmers islandwide, some of whom burnt effigies of government officials including the subject minister. Critics had called the ban a policy blunder which had cost the government its standing with the masses.
In a no-holds-barred response to Aluthgamage in parliament on Thursday (25), Sirisena seemed to lay the blame squarely on the minister.
“He lied to the president, to the cabinet, to parliament, to the people, to farmers, and to consumers. That’s what led to chaos in agriculture and the government becoming unpopular,” he said.
However, the almost overnight shift to organic fertilizer was very much in line with President Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s vision for a greener agriculture. Speaking at the COP26 climate summit in Glasgow on November 01, Rajapaksa defended the decision in the face of mounting opposition.
Critics had said repeatedly that, though it is a good idea in theory, the shift to organic agriculture should have been carried out in stages over a number of years. But the government stubbornly persisted – until Wednesday.
“It’s your behaviour and actions that led to the waning of this government’s popularity,” said Sirisena, referring to the minister.
“You burnt your effigies yourself, not the people,” he added.
Sirisena’s indignation seemed to stem from a matter not directly related to agriculture, however. He was responding largely to a comment Aluthgamage had made earlier Thursday afternoon about funds allocated to the presidential secretariat between 2015 and 2019 when Sirisena was president.
Aluthgamage told parliament that the presidential secretariat had spent 3.73 billion rupees in 2019 alone, where as incumbent President Rajapaksa spent only 1.2 billion rupees in 2020. The minister also claimed that Sirisena had used not one but three official residences adjacent to each other.
He also claimed that a political party – ostensibly referring to the SLFP – had “gone behind” the protesting farmers to set up party offices at villages and that certain rice mill owners had bankrolled some of the protests.
“I was trying to highlight the example set by the president. I don’t need anyone’s permission for that. I have a right to talk about my president,” said the minister.
Aluthgamage also defended the agrochemical ban.
“This was a decision taken by the government. It wasn’t a personal decision made by Mahindanda Aluthgamage,” he said.
“I was, am and will be with the government’s decisions, no question. Even if they burn effigies, even if I lose the next election, I am with this decision, because it’s a good and important one.”
Sirisena fired back that Aluthgamage had dredged up the matter of his vehicle use and expenses to provide an ego boost to the latter’s “boss”.
“[SLFPer] Duminda Dissanayaka had asked Mahindananda why he was bringing up this vehicle issue. He had replied ‘Have to say something to please our boss, don’t you know?’
“It makes no difference to us if the boss is pleased. Just don’t attack us. There are plenty of ways to please the boss without hitting out at us,” said Sirisena with a chuckle, though Aluthgamage later denied this.
The SLFP leader used the opportunity to remind the ruling Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP) of its bargaining position in the coalition.
“Since 1947, governments in this country were established with the support of other parties, and these alliances broke off along the way. One must consider a concept like the two thirds majority more intelligently.
“The two thirds majority of the government is in the hands of the SLFP’s 14 MPs. The past 50, 60 years have shown what happens when there is infighting in the government. This government is also a coalition government with 11, 12 parties supporting it,” he said.
Barring just two short-lived exceptions in the early 1950s and ’60s, Sri Lanka’s post-Independence history has consistently been defined by coalition governments. Over the years, governments have been run by political coalitions, or alliances, led by either the SLFP or the rival United National Party (UNP). Coalition or not, the two main parties have been at the forefront of governance virtually since day one. This, however, changed dramatically at the 2020 parliamentary polls with the meteoric rise of the SLPP. The alliance led by the Pohottuwa (lotus bud) party secured a near two-thirds majority in parliament.
In his response to Aluthgamage, Sirisena said he does not wish to “start a fight” nor throw stones inside glass houses.
“We don’t hit back if we’re attacked. We show pity. We’re not the type to get into rows. If we do retaliate, we won’t hit that way but another way,” he said, making thinly veiled allusions to vehicle fleets, residences, flights and helicopter rides enjoyed by his predecessors.
“If you want to fight, there is no telling what kind of injuries will be sustained,” he said.
Sirisena defended the expenses of his presidency, claiming that they were all part of projects that the incumbent administration has not bothered to continue.
“The past one and a half years, there were no international conventions or anything because of COVID-19. Everything was held on Zoom. So every world leader’s air travel reduced.
“But I appreciate the example set by the president. I too had set an example after my predecessors.”
The war of words between Sirisena and Aluthgamage included allusions to myriad scandals including the alleged Treasury bond scam during Sirisena’s years.
The former president largely kept his cool, however.
“Let’s not stoop low. [Aluthgamage] is a minister; I’ma former president, [SLFP general secretary and state minister Dayasiri Jayasekara] is a former chief minister. Let us speak in a manner befitting the positions we hold,” he said.
The heated exchange was the latest episode in a series of events that have led to speculation that all is not well in the ruling alliance, particularly between the SLPP and the SLFP. In an interview with EconomyNext in September, political scientist Prof Jayadewa Uyangoda offered some insights on the matter.
Uyangoda said though he cannot know exactly what might have motivated the SLFP in its recent decision, two possibilities exist.
“One is that they want to negotiate with the SLPP leadership from a position of some strength. It’s a threat, because they’re marginalised at the moment. They want to be recognised and treated with the respect they think they deserve,” he said.
“This can be a tactical move,” he added.
The second possibility, according to Uyangoda, is that the government’s popularity is eroding, with growing discontent in the country, and the SLFP would like to distance itself from that to an extent.
“People who voted for the Pohottuwa are also disenchanted. The SLFP is probably trying to make themselves attractive to those voters and to voters in the left as well,” he said.
Former president Sirisena’s ambitions must also be taken into account.
“Don’t ignore the fact that Mr Sirisena is a seasoned and experienced politician. He’s probably not an idealist like you and me. Survival is probably the most important thing for him,” said Uyangoda.
The political scientist said any party would understandably try to capitalise on the government’s growing unpopularity.
“People who backed this government are not as strongly supportive of it as they once were,” he said.
If the SLFP wants to appeal to these disenchanted voters, said Uyangoda, it must try to keep some distance between itself and the more contentious decisions of the government.
“They have to at least demonstrate that they are not 100% in agreement with the government decisions. The economic crisis I think is going to make life difficult for the government, so this is to be expected,” he said. (Colombo/Nov25/2021)