By Jehan Perera –
Following the initial relief amongst those who wanted to see the change of government that took place in January sustained, the aftermath of last month’s general election is not generating the euphoria that accompanied that of the presidential election earlier in the year. The presidential election saw an immediate change of government, in terms of both personalities and policies. President Mahinda Rajapaksa who had undermined systems of government to impose his will on the polity was removed from power. There was a palpable lifting of the sense of threat from an oppressive government which was getting increasingly lawless and acting with impunity. The new government team began to swiftly implement the 100 Day Action Plan that they had promised during the presidential election campaign.
However, three weeks after the general election the new government has still to be finalized with nearly half of the ministerial slots still remaining to be filled. Almost all of the cabinet positions were filled last week, but all of the other ministerial positions remain undisclosed and unfilled. In the background of the delay in the appointment of ministers is the decision of President Maithripala Sirisena and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe to form a national government through an alliance of the two largest political parties in Parliament. The slim majority that Prime Minister Wickremesinghe’s alliance obtained made it politically pragmatic for the two main parties to work together in Parliament rather than separately.
If the UNP and SLFP had not agreed to enter into an agreement to work together in a national government there would have been a danger of political instability due to the prospect of cross overs from one side of parliament to the other. This danger was magnified due to the proven ability of former president Mahinda Rajapaksa to engineer defections in the past. He first showed this ability after becoming president in 2005. At the previous parliamentary election held in2004, the UPFA alliance won only 105 of the 225 seats, allowing it to form a minority government. Upon winning the presidential election in 2005, President Rajapaksa engineered defections from the opposition and increased the number of government MPs to 129, almost all of whom were rewarded with ministerial posts.
The sharing out the ministerial positions to ensure that the government is stabilized is proving to be difficult. This has also accounted for the swelling of the number of government ministries. The large size of the cabinet and the number of other ministers who total over 90 in a parliament of 225 is being subjected to popular criticism. The practice of swollen ministries began three decades ago, and is a means used by governments to attract opposition members to their own side and to prevent defections. This practice is extremely unpopular with the general public who see the wastage of resources in the upkeep of so many ministers. Both President Sirisena and Prime Minister Wickremesinghe campaigned on a platform of good governance, which included reducing the wastage of resources. The 19th Amendment to the Constitution that they gave leadership to specifies that the cabinet of ministers should be less than 30.
However, the 19th Amendment itself provides for a larger number of ministries in the event of the formation of a national government if this larger number is ratified by Parliament. This procedure was followed by the new government, which obtained the sanction of Parliament for increasing the number of ministries to 48 with 45 deputy ministers. It can be argued that the large size of the cabinet and the total number of ministers is part of the transitional process from bad governance to good governance. It is born out of the political necessity to keep former president Rajapaksa and his allies from returning to power by employing the same means of providing their own set of incentives to parliamentarians to join them in forming a government. A return of the former president and his ways of misgoverning the country would have been extremely injurious to the country.
Although defeated in both the presidential election and at the general election where he led the opposition UPFA alliance in the election campaign, the former president cannot be ruled out of staging a comeback in his quest for power. At the general election, he demonstrated his ability to stage a comeback by overcoming the opposition to his candidature from the chairman of the UPFA, President Sirisena himself, to take on the leadership of the UPFA campaign. Even thought his ambition to capture power by winning the general elections was thwarted, there is no ruling out other attempts if the opportunity presents itself. The former president continues to exert a powerful influence over the majority of UPFA parliamentarians to this date who thrived in an environment where checks and balances and the rule of law were in abeyance.
The selection of the Leader of the Opposition in Parliament gave an indication of the challenge that President Sirisena faces within the UPFA. Over a half of the UPFA parliamentarians proposed that Kumara Welgama, a staunch supporter of the former president, should be appointed as the Opposition Leader. However, this request was disregarded by the leadership of the UPFA, whose chairman is President Sirisena. The UPFA’s official position is that it is a part of the national government and hence cannot be simultaneously a part of the opposition. But a sizeable number of the UPFA parliamentary group is not in favour of the formation of the national government and prefer to try and topple the UNP-led government and get back to power as soon as possible. Most of them defied the party whip and abstained from the parliamentary vote that saw the elevation of TNA leader R Sampanthan to the post of Leader of the Opposition.
The appointment of candidates of the UPFA who were defeated at the general elections as national list MPs by President Sirisena has also come in for strong criticism. The national list enabled political parties in parliament to nominate those of professional and moral standing in society to parliament in proportion to the number of votes won by each party. The practice of appointing defeated candidates back to parliament on the national list is a vitiation of good governance. But it is a practice by all parties, which have nominated one of more defeated candidates back to parliament. In the case of the UPFA list, they are all loyalists of President Sirisena. This was a bid to increase the strength of the president within the UPFA in the face of the continuing challenge posed to his leadership by the former president.
Politics is said to be the art of the possible. At the present time political compromises and accommodations are taking place with the intention of stabilizing the government which has pledged to engage in national reform, rebuild the faith that the people have in their government and to put in place structures of good governance. One of the positive signs is the election of TNA leader R Sampanthan as the Leader of the Opposition and the JVP leader Anura Kumara Dissanayake as the Chief Opposition Whip. Both of them represent political parties that have remained outside of the national government, yet they have been provided an important and independent role in governance to be a check and balance on the government. The setting up of a new ministry for National Dialogue under Minister Mano Ganesan who himself has led a civic human rights organization is an opportunity for the government to take peace building and problem solving messages through civil society organisations to the general population. The plural, multi-ethnic and multi-religious nature of the new government increases the prospect of a significant move forward in the direction of post-war national