The Sunday Leader

Taking The National Government Forward

By N Sathiya Moorthy

With early parliamentary polls becoming a possibility, though not a probability until the SLFP-UPFA agrees to back the truncated 19-A, partners to the existing national government have to replace the present predilections in favour of a clear-cut approach to governance, if they are serious about convincing the cadre and voter that they are serious about continuing with the experiment, post-poll as well.  In doing so, they would also have to replace personalities with programmes, and come up with solutions that are universal in approach and application, particularly in terms of political leadership, direction and guidance.

UNP Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe has remained a champion the national government now. It flows from the realisation that for the promised constitutional reforms from the presidential poll campaign, they will require two-thirds majority in Parliament for all proposals and nation-wide referendum on some.

The Supreme Court has already outlined two on power-sharing between the President and the PM, and also media oversight. Any major shift in the electoral pattern entails possibly another query for referendum, the Supreme Court were to determine so. Any solution to the ethnic issue and Centre-Province power-devolution, whichever way it goes, could invite more.

Unlike predecessor government leaderships of Presidents Chandrika Bandaranaike-Kumaratunga (CBK) and Mahinda Rajapaksa, who failed to carry the mainline Sinhala-Buddhist Opposition with them while in power, the Ranil approach seems to be the only possible way out. Nowhere else could this need be felt more than in reforming the electoral scheme.

The existing proportionate representation (PR) system has played spoiler in ways not imagined at inception.

For the same reason, rushing through any new scheme at the nick of time for 19-A passage without a detailed if need be, long drawn-out national discourse could end up hurting in ways not anticipated or provided for. Still, a national government of the kind envisaged, post-poll, could be an oxymoron. Though unmentioned, at the conceptual level, the promise of early parliamentary polls were also aimed at  ensuring political stability, which would have anyway been rattled if common Opposition candidate Maithiripala Sirisena were to be elected President.

A promised national government under the circumstances could ensure continuity, instead. But continuity and  stability are not one and the same.

For political reasons and ideological compulsions, President Sirisena-led SLFP and PM Ranil’s UNP cannot contest elections on the same side without making huge compromises and still greater sacrifices. Politicians as these parties are made up of, the leaderships’ desire for unity cannot percolate to the second rung forget all those below. Hence the decision to contest the parliamentary polls separately, and also have those polls early, was the more practical way to address the unavoidable issues that is expectantly cropping up for the national government even during the first 100 days.

Government and the Opposition

From day one, this government is seen as that of PM Ranil, though constitutionally, it continues to be that of President Sirisena. This is even when PM Ranil’s UNP continues to be in a minority in Parliament.

It owes not only to President Sirisena being elected with massive UNP backing, and against an incumbent SLFP President to boot. The nomination of a senior SLFP-UPFA leader, Nimal Siripala de Silva, as the Leader of the Opposition in Parliament, has only added to the confusion. The SLFP-UPFA’s parliamentary problems is not necessarily with the government (read: UNP), but within itself.

Outside Parliament and inside the SLFP-UPFA, President Sirisena is getting increasingly pitted against predecessor Rajapaksa. Outside of the Sirisena-led combine, Rajapaksa is getting pitted against PM Ranil, instead. These are public imageries from the past and are gaining strength by the passing day. They refuse to go away. Either as the government leader or party chief, or both, President Sirisena is getting increasingly caught between the other two. Truth be told, there does not seem to be any space left any more for CBK or anyone else to occupy, even in the internal affairs of the SLFP-UPFA.

In this background, it may be better for the likes of Ranil and the UNP to talk about evolving a national consensus on key issues than continuing with a national government. The simmering adversity between the UNP and the SLFP-UPFA at the cadre-level would have ensured that at the end of a hotly-fought parliamentary election that there was no love lost between the two. With the SLFP-UPFA continuing to complain about government-sponsored police harassment of their leaders and cadres alike, the post-poll situation could become non-conducive for any real and real-time rapprochement.

It’s not as if a post-poll national government is not at all possible. Parties, particularly the big two namely, the UNP and the SLFP, would have to be prepared for sacrifices and compromises, based on ground realities that the elections might throw up. The problem will commence with the choice of a post-poll prime minister.

If President Sirisena made UNP’s Ranil Wickremesinghe Prime Minister on assuming office, he was only keeping his electoral promise to the other, that too outside of the constitutional and political scheme.

The pre-poll assumption at the time was that if Sirisena were to become President, the SLFP-UPFA would go with him, and managing a parliamentary majority would not be a problem at all. Rather, none in the Sirisena campaign, or outside, wanted to think about anything beyond getting President Rajapaksa replaced, electorally.

Many were not bothered about those problems, some knew these problems existed and would erupt but did not want to think or talk about them.

Today the strong combine is a part of the ‘government is not wholly under President Sirisena’s leadership, either or, so it would seem. It’s not as if loyalties are divided within the SLFP-UPFA. Plain and simple, they are confused and getting even more complex.

Anyone but MR or RW?

A national government of the present kind would become an absolute necessity only if neither of the Big Two is able to command a parliamentary majority of its own. Such a majority could also include the support of smaller parties, still keeping the other out of it.

The questions of a coalition government call it national or whatever  would become necessary if and only if the numbers still do not add up for either of the ‘Big Two’. It’s a real possibility under the existing scheme of proportionate representation (PR) for the parliamentary polls.
It is one thing for either of the Big Two to head a government without the other.

In such a case, the UNP’s choice of prime minister is predictable. There could be claimants and criticism if the SLFP-UPFA were to romp home with President Rajapaksa’s name getting talked about already and in a big way. Even if the party and Parliament wanted, it would however remain to be seen if Rajapaksa would want to be prime minister under Sirisena, who after the Supreme Court’s determination on power-transfer, would continue to be Executive President.

If a national government still became the need of the hour in terms of numbers and national priorities the prime minister’s post could go to the party with the highest number of elected MPs, between the Big Two.

A situation could still arise in which the loser between the Big Two could still show up a higher number of supporters for taking the prime minister’s job for its nominee — with the backing of smaller parties that is. The very idea of a national government could then be in jeopardy.

With or without such a construct, the question of who the other would accept as prime minister can be another ticklish issue that the leaderships cannot resolve that very easily, unless they began working on, back-stage, already. They can’t do a blind-date or a blind-walk, as they had done for the presidential polls and for relatively justifiable reasons and circumstances.

Theoretically, and for politically and electorally justifiable reasons, the UNP for instance could tell the SLFP-UPFA Anyone but Mahinda R. The SLFP-UPFA, in turn could also tell the UNP, Anyone but Ranil W. It’s a game that both can play and try to play out the other, too, at times.
It does not stop there, though. The chances of a one-party government, post-poll, are almost ruled out.

Even if the SLFP-UPFA were to win an absolute majority, it’s already an alliance, however weak or strong individual parties and/or leaders might be. They need to draw up a detailed common minimum or even a maximum programme for the proposed government, before they could proceed in the matter.

Tail wagging the dog, and more…

It cannot be as hollow and as non-serious as the current 100-day programme. Given the changed political circumstances, electoral environment and participatory experience, the voter will be more serious about evaluating any pre-poll/post-poll commitment from their side than at present.

They would not have the pleasure of ready acceptance as has been the case now, nor would they have the leisure of the present transitional phase, if it could be called so. The partners to the government will also need to work out the modalities for the function of an equivalent to what the present government has in the National Executive Council. It could be the case even for other forms of coalition governments where only one of the Big Two is a partner, though the leading partner.

While ensuring that the tail does not wag the dog, the leader of any such coalition – it could be leaders if the ‘Big Two’ are together involved also has to ensure that they do not act under the India’s There Is No Alternative’ (TINA) maxim, for the government partners but to back the coalition leader  is as applicable to the minorities in the company of the UNP, post-poll, as it has always been with the smaller Sinhala parties viz the SLFP.

Keeping minorities out?

In the present-day Sri Lankan context, the Tamil-speaking minority parties, wont to complaining even otherwise, are candidates for being run rough-shod over.

It would be more so if the elections were to throw up Mahinda R, anyone closely identified with him, as the prime minister. The situation just now does not seem likely to emerge in Sri Lanka any sooner, but it need not always be the case.

The TNA, the SLMC and the rest would have little choice but to side with the UNP which could suffocate one or the other, in its own way. It should be avoided, in the larger interest of coalition politics, and not necessarily to keep the minorities on one’s side. After all, there is a need to remember that until not very long ago, close to 50 of the 225 MPs were Tamil-speaking and were spread across the political spectrum, if one were also to count the likes of SLFP-UPFA’s STTE-slain Jeyaraj Fernandopule also as the one that he anyway was.

Any serious post-poll arrangement to form a national government involving the Big Two and even a limited success of the experiment to begin with could threaten the very relevance, if not existence, of smaller parties and those with the minority tag.  The greater has a better longevity particularly if they were to feel threatened even more and also conclude early on that their days of hedging between the Big Two may be on the way out.

Lesser parties identified with the majority community, whether of the Sinhala-Buddhist nationalist variety of the Right or the Left, may be the ones to be hit early on.

Yet, for anyone to conclude that should the Big Two come together and for good, there would always be a national government and there would not be any national problem of the ethnic or any other kind, they would be sadly mistaken. Politics, particularly of the democracy variety, would always find space for an Opposition clueless at times, faceless at times – but not all the time.

It is thus not unlikely that an umbrella government even of the perceived/promised national variety could be the beginning of the end of the existing political party scheme. If anyone, the Big Two should be more concerned than be celebrating, even if they sort out all teething problems.

They only need to recall the birth of the SLFP out of the UNP once the common, national cause of Independence had been achieved, the traditional Left giving space, if not outright way, to the JVP and the JHU, now in a way, heralding the arrival of BBS, not to leave aside the CWC split, the birth and death of moderate SLT parties and the like.

As their own experience has shown, it’s the kind of situation that traditional and deep-rooted parties with deep-seated perceptions are ill-equipped to acknowledge, accept and act upon. In a Sri Lanka, where the post-war Generation for a whole variety of reasons, is looking for and looking up to imminent change, that would be saying a lot and lot more.

There may be more of such voter revelation of his mind and method, and his craving for change in the parliamentary polls just as it was there in the preceding presidential election.

(The writer is Director, Chennai Chapter of the Observer Research Foundation, the multi-disciplinary Indian public-policy think-tank, headquartered in New Delhi. email: sathiyam54@gmail.com)

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