24 September, 2023


A Precarious Transition And National Government?

By S. I. Keethaponcalan –

Dr S.I. Keethaponcalan

Dr S.I. Keethaponcalan

The last time Sri Lanka had a president and cabinet of ministers from two different parties was in the 2001 – 2004 period: the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) and the United National Party (UNP), respectively. President Chandrika Kumaratunga (SLFP) was re-elected in 1999 and in 2001 the coalition headed by Ranil Wickramesinge (UNP) won the general election. The expected cohabitation between the two failed because the president used her constitutional powers and prematurely dissolved parliament in 2004. The UNP government collapsed with the dissolution of parliament.

Sri Lanka has been forced into a SLFP-UNP combination again following the recently concluded presidential election. Chairman of the SLFP Maithripala Sirisena is now the president and the cabinet is headed by UNP leader Ranil Wickremesinge. The combination seems to be sailing smoothly and the cohabitation between the two will not be a problem, at least in the short term. The main difference this time around is the fact that President Sirisena was elected mostly with the UNP votes in January 2015. Therefore, he will not allow his party men to topple the government until the 100-day reform program the government has announced is completed. This reform program is President Sirisena’s election promise.

General Election

However, the Prime Minister has already declared that the parliament will be dissolved in April of this year, presumably after the reform program is concluded. This suggestion leads to several unanswered questions. The most crucial and intriguing question is, what would be the position of President Sirisena in the forthcoming parliamentary election?

Although the President and the Prime Minister are talking about a national government, the indication is that the SLFP will contest independently or with its minor allies as the United People’s Freedom Alliance (UPFA). Would President Sirisena, as the chairman of the SLFP, underwrite his party? Or would he support the UNP and its allies? Both are tricky propositions. Supporting and propping up his party would force him to betray the people who voted him to power. Throwing his weight behind the UNP-led coalition would jeopardize his position within the SLFP. As a compromise, the president may very well choose to stay neutral in the parliamentary election.

Maithri Chandrika RanilHowever, a neutral stance of the president will indirectly favor the SLFP and force the UNP into a sort of crisis. The UNP cannot be too confident about the general election in April, if one goes by the recent (presidential) election results.

In the last presidential election the UNP-led coalition obtained 51.3 percent of the total votes cast. This coalition is unlikely to be intact, as some of the coalition partners will certainly contest alone. For example, the Tamil National Alliance (TNA) which endorsed the UNP-led coalition and Sirisena’s candidacy, will contest independently. The Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP), which desisted from contesting in January 2015 will also contest.

Presumably, the JVP votes went to Sirisena in the presidential election because the party indirectly campaigned against Rajapaksa. These two parties combined will take about eight percent of the votes Sirisena gained in January. Therefore, the UNP or a UNP-led coalition will find it difficult to gain 50 percent of the votes in the general election.

Meanwhile, the 47.6 percent votes Mahinda Rajapaksa polled could be solid SLFP votes, which probably will go to the SLFP or an SLFP-led coalition. Possibly, the only major problem the SLFP will have is the Ceylon Workers Congress (CWC), which could defect and join the UNP. Defection of the CWC will not dent the SLFP votes too much because the plantation Tamil votes are already split between the CWC and parties that support the UNP. Therefore, if the parliamentary election is held today, the SLFP (and its partners) probably will gain more than 50 percent of the seats in the national legislature.

UNP Strategy

The UNP has about three months to address its electoral concerns. The government is in the process of undertaking three major schemes: (1) introducing constitutional and other reforms to address problems of good governance, (2) trying to address the now deep-rooted culture of corruption in the country, and (3) introducing relief measures to target issues created by the high cost of living. The new government through its interim budget has offered a number of relief measures, including price reduction of some of the essential goods and salary increases.

Obviously, one of the objectives of these schemes, especially the interim budget, is winning more votes in the forthcoming election. These actions may fetch more votes, but they do not guarantee a victory for the UNP-led coalition.

The problem is that a possible collapse of the present bipolar arrangement with President Sirisena and Prime Minister Wickremasinge at the helm will be a setback for the people who spearheaded the change of governance in January. This could also reverse the reform agenda. A regular election would allow the corruptors, abusers and authoritarians to return to power with ease. A regular election would not be a good idea until the political culture is modified and reformed.

National Government

A solution to this dilemma might be possible if President Sirisena could engineer a short-term alliance based on an electoral pact between the UNP and the SLFP to form a national government. A short-term alliance between the UNP and the SLFP in order to successfully complete the reform program might be the answer to various problems that could emanate from an immediate general election. The history between these two parties does not suggest that they can come together or coexist. On the other hand, currently they are together because the president and the cabinet are cohabitating effectively. Therefore, an arrangement based on the notion of a national government comprising the SLFP and the UNP could be an extension of the present reality. They can part ways when the democratization process is over.

One of the drawbacks of this idea is that there will not be a strong opposition party in parliament because both major parties will be in the government. An effective opposition is important for good governance. However, if the UNP and the SLFP could come together, the responsibility of leading the opposition will rest with the JVP or the TNA. The JVP increasingly is becoming a responsible party promoting democratic ideals. It could continue to be an effective watchdog. Therefore, leaving the opposition to the JVP cannot be such a bad idea. If the TNA wins more seats to become the main opposition, it will be the second experiment. The first experiment in 1977 failed badly.

*Dr. S. I. Keethaponcalan is Chair of the Conflict Resolution Department, Salisbury University, Maryland

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Latest comments

  • 0

    Dr.S I K,

    Constitutional reform and addressing culture of corruption in the next 2 moths will not change the mood of the masses. Relief measures certainly make a tangible difference.

    What is needed is a visible display of extravagance which was sheer waste. Mathala Airport and Cricket Stadium should be filmed and contrasted to the huts in villages and slums in cities.

    You are right about Arumugam Thondaman. Even his own seat he will lose. So he will trek towards UNP before that. Not difficult for one who went to LTTE HQ, Wanni and then to Indian High Commissioner to get his vehicles returned and security restored.

    Past President and his minions can be exposed in a thousand ways. The new government is failing tragically. The defeated government has 80 more days to build up in 800 different ways.

    Flagrant sins of commission then and unpardonable sins of omission now.

  • 0


    Your last sentence:
    If the TNA wins more seats to become the main opposition,it will be the second experiment.The first experiment in 1977 failed badly.

    Frankly,the start of the modern Sinhala-Tamil conflict had its beginnings in 1977 when the TULF on a EELAM mandate became the main opposition.The SLFP led coalition Govt:was defeated comprehensively and the UNP HAD A 4/5TH majority in Parliament! In fact Dr.Colvin R.de Silva who was defeated in 1977,made a Prophetic remark.He said The Sinhala-Tamil issue will occupy the centre of the political stage.That indeed was the case as the subsequent developments began unfolding.A.Amirthalingam,the Leader of the opposition in 1977 was by nature a very aggressive politician.The slanging debates in Parliament between him and Cyril Mathew a minister in the Govt: made matters worse.The rest is History.It would not be in the interests of a minority like the Tamils to constitute the main opposition like what happened in 1977.Perhaps they can lend support to form a National Govt:like what happened in 1965 when the FP.joined DUDLEY.That was the only instance since Independence when a Govt:was able to complete the full 5yr term.Therefore,there should be no second Experiment!

  • 0

    Batting on a very tricky wicket, no ?
    Political innovation will be at it’s best.
    We have all learnt, rather harshly, how political co-habitations are undermined by those in power ( CBK and regretted by her later ) and how effective opposition, becomes ineffective ( UNP and the TULF ). We will now seek a new model of governance.
    Considering the political pole vaulters of the Major Party’s, the TNA and JVP will be a an effective opposition.
    Perhaps the TNA and JVP can come to an understanding on the position of a revolving or shared post of the opposition leader.

  • 0

    All governments so far, have had their future ruined by ‘pole-vaulters’
    who change political alliances for personal benefits only.
    The 100 day program has a promise of making ‘change overs’ unlawful.
    This may be an effective deterrent.
    And, maybe, enable survival of an SLFP/UNP alliance.

  • 3

    Dr. K,

    It may be possible for the President and ( the majority UNP) cabinet to co- habit but that does not mean that the UNP and SLFP can co- habit.

    It is highly unlikely that the parliamentary elections will be held in April even though the PM has declared so. The EC has stated clearly that he will need more time to prepare for elections under a reformed scheme, namely first past the post plus proportional rep basis. So, if the elections are postponed to say June, the UNP will have more time to prepare for the elections.

    Very little seems to be done to bring to book the real culprits who squandered billions of rupees of peoples’ money. The reasons for these delays are not clear. As things are, opportunities are being provided for MaRa, his family and his gang to resurrect!

    Sengodan. M

  • 1


    In a matter of two months we will again be faced with a choice of which of the coalition of vicious and greedy devils to choose from. We the common voter have had very little choice. All those vying for power are known devils. They all have chequered pasts either with unbridled thieving or mass murder or both.

    Keetha, you have confronted the very real issue that most have so far failed to give serious thought to. However at the end what does it matter.

    The wool pullers will pull the wool over the eyes of the gullible voter; the smooth talkers will craftily bury their corrupt pasts; the inept will come to power premising the impossible; the monks will be brought in to give a new twist and a spin to old squeaky records; the Rajpals will blatantly be partisan with serious demeanours; the Tamil politicians will make veiled promises of a separate state and come to power to deliver nothing of the sort; the Hakeems will quietly and successfully sneak into the triumphant team and the pole-vaulters will vault either before or after into the winning side.

    Whoever or whatever ‘achcharu’ end up winning, us – meaning the gullible voter will lose. That is the only consolation, to know beforehand, that we the voter will lose no matter what – more or less.

  • 2

    Politics is a game and it will be difficult to predict what happens next.
    It is good to talk about good governance but in reality we still have the same old politicians who are prepared to jump over again if the circumstances changes. I don’t think is a real change in the attitude of politicians.
    In my opinion TNA should not take an active part in the Southern political game which will have negative impact on the Tamil people. Of course, TNA should support all actions that are helpful in creating good governance but to keep neutral on the matters that are irrelevant.

  • 0

    SLEP paticipation in the Leadership council is essential.

  • 0

    What has been stated is that the Parliament will be dissolved in April. That definitely means the elections will not be in April, but most likely be in June in any case.
    The Rajapaksa received 47%votes only after using state employees, state media, state coffers, ill-gotten money, massive propaganda, etc. to the hilt. When not in power, they will not have any of those to hood-wink people. People now understand who MR really is. There were more than 50% enlighten voters before the elections and now more and more are getting enlightened now. So even if SLFP/UPFA contest separately, they will not be able to get that much of votes at the next elections, and definitely not the 50% suggested in this article.
    The other scenario (which it looks like being brewed now) is SLFP contesting alone under the hand symbol, leaving their UPFA partners left high and dry. This has made Dinesh worry and is trying to start a separate UPFA alliance with Wimal, Gammanpila, Vasu and some others trying to promote MR as their PM candidate.
    One other factor we have to take in to account is that Chandrika will show her influence in the SLFP when facing the election. So the MR loyalists may sometimes not even get nominations, as the Head of SLFP Maithripala will be the final authority of giving directions to SLFP whether to contest alone (without other UPFA parties) and or who should contest on SLFP ticket.
    One other possibility is for those who supported Maithripala to contest under Swan symbol and Maithripala to take (from the SLFP) whoever he wants to this alliance to contest the Parliamentary elections.

  • 0

    BBS Rep.

    Permit me to be a bit more explicit.
    Hakeems party has been with Govt:since 1994- A decade! Cabinet postings,Diplomatic postings and all.All through Horse deals.Even on this occasion they were cohabiting with MARA until the very last,hoping to pull the Wool over his head and extract the long cherished goal of the New administrative district of KALMUNAI.They seem to have mastered the art of Pole Vaulting.Right now, I am told,they are at Practice session for the next Pole-VAULT. If the Sinhala electorate decides to give clear mandates so that either the UNP or SLFP can form Govt: Hakeems party will not be able to either Pole-Vault or do the High-Jump!

  • 0

    The best option which will be good for the country is for the present alliance to contest under the swan symbol under the leadership of the President and PM.Give nominations only to the cream and untainted politicians from UNP and SLFP which will be a winning team and leave the racists out.This will bring in immense benefits to the country and its people.

  • 0


    Spot on .I agree.But,when you say Racists,are you referring to the Sinhala racists or the Tamil and Muslim racists.

    Hakeems party has been in Power not for one decade but two decades!

  • 0

    As a government the UNP can address its problems until the parliament is dissolved. After that it can only campaign like any other party. So, it is true that the UNP has only about three months. Can it do it, thats a different question.

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