The Sunday Leader

The Wound That Needs To Be Healed Through Power Sharing

By Jehan Perera

The unity between the several political parties that constitute the National Democratic Front (NDF) government has been holding better than expected.  There has been a concern that the opposition alliance will be too unlike-minded for governance to take place effectively.  It includes members of political parties that have been severely critical of one another and who come from different ideological persuasions and ethnic communities.  So far, however, there has been an exceptionally smooth takeover of the reins of government by the political parties that constitute the NDF government.

During the election campaign an unfavorable comparison was drawn between proven stability of the UPFA government headed by former President Mahinda Rajapaksa, which appeared set to remain in power for another generation at least, and the uncertain combination of opposition parties that were challenging him.   The business community, to whom political stability is of utmost importance, was susceptible to this argument.  While they too would privately complain about rampant corruption, they valued doing business with those who appeared to be permanent fixtures.

But appearances have proven to be deceptive.  The once powerful UPFA government is today no more and its former leaders are being discredited with more and more revelations of corruption and violence.  One of the key factors in the smoothness of the transition of power has also been President Maithripala Sirisena’s readiness to keep to his pre-election promises.  During the election campaign President Sirisena recognised that his voters would come largely from the main opposition party headed by UNP leader Ranil Wickremesinghe and promised to appoint the UNP leader as Prime Minister. President Sirisena’s decision to appoint Ranil Wickremesinghe as prime minister within minutes of his own oath taking as president laid to rest any apprehension of conflict between the two leaders.  There was a possibility that once elected, and vested with the plenitude of powers of the presidency, President Sirisena might renege on his promise and seek to take control over the new government himself.  But the working relationship between the president and prime minister, and the division of responsibilities between them, has so far been very good to all appearances.  This positivity permeates the structure of government at the present time.

Sharing power

An example would be Minister Navin Dissanayake’s speech when he assumed office as Minister of Sports and Tourism illustrates an attitude of power sharing and team work that did not exist in the former government.  In welcoming his deputy Wasantha Senanayake the minister said that he would have a free hand to do his work.  He said this would be unlike his own experiences as a minister in the previous government.  Most of the senior leaders of the former government, who crossed over to the opposition, including President Sirisena himself, complained that they had no scope for independent decision making within the highly centralised structures of the former government.

The willingness of those within the new government to share power with one another and work as a team is a refreshing break from the past.  The previous president centralised more and more power in himself and his close associates.  As a result there was a lack of transparency in their dealings, but also a lack of creativity.  The former government engaged in giant infrastructure development of roads, ports, airports and building of offices, hotels and apartments, but with little or no participation by other actors in the polity.  Therefore the benefits seemed to accrue primarily to a few and not to all.  In the present government, on the other hand, each minister is vested with authority in his or her own sphere.  As a result reading and listening to the news has become interesting because there is something new and creative being done or being promised, by different members of the government.

Diversity is a source of strength as it offers the possibility of different solutions to different challenges.  The diversity within the government is a source of strength as it represents the diversity of the people of the country.  The power sharing that is taking place within the new government and the ability of political parties with differing ideologies and ethnic constituencies to work together is a sign of unity in diversity.   When such political parties can work together in the government, no significant section of the people are likely to feel marginalised and left out and so they are less likely to rebel against the government.


Ethnic issue

During the election campaign, President Sirisena promised a national government that would address national issues.  The main issues of the coalition of political parties that supported him were corruption, cost of living and rule of law.  Leaders of the coalition spoke about the solutions they envisaged and explained them to the people.  On the other hand, there was one significant issue that they did not talk about in any depth.  This was the ethnic issue.  This left the space open to the propagandists of the former government to exploit it to the maximum and without adequate rebuttal. During the past ten years, nationalist (and racist) ideology was dominant due to the former government’s use of all propaganda tools at its disposal, especially the state media.  This propaganda got very much worsened during the run-up to the presidential elections when the propaganda got more vile and venomous.  They made maximum use of anti-LTTE and war propaganda to cause fear and hatred in the people. They showed highly dramatised versions of events of the past on national television and at their campaign rallies.

Although the government that spread nationalist fear and hatred is gone, there is a need to urgently tackle the wound they left in the body politic and which will continue to exploit.   The nationalism that the former government aroused was not a Sri Lankan nationalism that would unite the people but one that was based on extreme Sinhalese nationalism that divided the ethnic communities.  This gained the former President the majority of Sinhalese votes in the rural areas in particular.  This is a divide that needs to be healed as it is liable to be exploited again during the run up to the general elections that are due in June.

The sharing of power that has taken place within the NDF government is the way to resolve the ethnic conflict also by the sharing of power between communities and with the provinces.  There is also a need for a more holistic public education campaign that would sustain the positive changes that have occurred in the consciousness of the people, particularly the rural people who have relied on state media for their information.

The regression that took place in the understanding of democracy, as simply being the people’s mandate, and that a government could act in any  way it wished even like a king after getting that mandate, needs to be reversed.

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