By Harsha Gunasena –
Concept of national government was mentioned in the election manifesto of Maithripala Sirisena in 2015 presidential election. “For that purpose a National Unity Alliance Government will be established for a hundred day interim period. This programme will be implemented through a National government comprising the Sri Lanka Freedom Party, the United National Party, Jatika Hela Urumaya and people’s representatives all other political parties that are represented in the present Parliament who are willing to join this programme.” This concept as well as the concept of Liccavi system of governance was first brought in by the Prime Minister. When he was the Opposition Leader during Mahinda Rajapaksa’s second stint as the President UNP brought a concept paper for a new constitution where Liccavi system was discussed. Intention of this was to find out a lasting solution to the ethnic conflict, establish a new constitution and agree on long term policies of the government.
However, the process of constitutional reforms is stalled and no solution was given to the ethnic conflict. The reason for this was that the politicians of this country placed their own political interests ahead of the national interest. The President before and after occupying the post stated that he would bean one term president. It was the expectation of many who voted for him that he would be a non-partisan president. Situation changed gradually after he took over the leadership of the Sri Lanka freedom Party (SLFP).
Rift between the President and the Prime Minister emerged during the 100-day period of the interim government. This affected the balance of the national government and the situation came to the zenith in October 2018. It was declared by the Prime Minister well ahead of the general election the continuity of the national government. Events that happened during the General Election and thereafter, led to the situation in which the leadership of the President to the SLFP would hinder the very purpose of the national government. SLFP considered him a traitor. A vast majority of SLFP voted against him at the presidential election. Therefore, he could not effectively lead the party. Mahinda Rajapaksa gave the leadership to the election campaign of SLFP at the general election. President had given nominations to Rajapaksa since he was compelled to do so. That act was criticized by many who voted in favor of the president at the presidential election. Fractions of the SLFP joined the national governments established before and after the general election. Later some of them, who joined the national government defected. The fraction who did not joined the national government treated President as an opponent. Therefore, from the beginning the national government did not evolve as a national government. MPs of SLFP who were in the national government acted with giving attention to the requirements of their colleagues who were in the opposition. This background degraded the national government to the level of a coalition government since there was a strong opposition, which was a fraction of one of the constituent parties of the government. The main reason for this was the leadership of the President of the SLFP.
President tried to walk a tightrope, but he failed. In his controversial address to the nation just prior to the general election, he said even if SLFP wins he would not give the Prime Minister post to Rajapaksa and at the same speech he said if the parliament was dissolved soon after the presidential election, UNP would have a landslide victory. Hence he prevented it.
Public mandate was by and large for UNP. After the presidential election the exodus of MPs from SLFP to UNP was prevented by the Licchavi system and the acceptance of SLFP leadership by the President. Sri Lanka had minority governments except in two instances after the elections held under the 1978 constitution. UNP accommodated SLFP ministers, some of them were rejected by the voters and appointed through the national list. As a result, voters of the UNP were confused at the electorate level since the power was not transferred yet.
One main reason for not dissolving the parliament soon after the presidential election was that the issue of the pension rights of the MPs. This symbolizes the situation the country is in. If the President was neutral and Mahinda Rajapaksa joined the national government in the capacity of the leader of the opposition then that would have been a real national government and not a coalition government. the functions of that government would have been to establish a new constitution and thereby give a permanent solution to the ethnic problem of the country and formulate long lasting national policies for the country. Thereafter the national government would have been dissolved.
Under these circumstances the court cases against Mahinda Rajapaksa and his family members would have been in the same situation as of now. Therefore, in the national point of view, the nation has paid the price already but not achieved any result. If the price was paid to achieve the said envisaged objectives of the national government, there would have been no issue. However, the price paid has granted petty political gains to the Prime Minister and the President. Split of the SLFP was a gain to the Prime Minister and eventually by combining it President tried to gain politically.
President would have thought of a political base for himself when accepting the leadership of the SLFP. He argued in favor of his decision that if not for him the parliament would have not been able to pass the 19th amendment to the constitution. There was a considerable influence made by him for the process. On the other hand, it was a minority government and the opposition did not want to topple the apple cart. For the opposition if not consented there was a risk of facing a general election and losing more seats. In the long run the neutrality of the President would have been the best to achieve the given objectives of the national government.
Even under the given circumstances Public Representations Committee on Constitutional Reform headed by Lal Wijenayake was established and the report was issued; the Parliament met as a constitutional assembly with the powers of Parliamentary Select Committee to draft the new constitution; Steering Committee of the Constitutional Assembly was appointed with 21 MPs; six sub committees of the Steering Committee were established with the active participation of MPs representing all the political parties of the parliament and those reports were published; based on the steering committee deliberations and reports of the sub committees, an expert panel prepared a report to the steering committee in the form of a draft constitution; and it was presented to the Constitutional Assembly by the Steering Committee.
It may have been the intention of the Prime Minister to take the debate of the constitution to the people with the political leadership of the President. The President as well as the Prime Minister were reluctant to give the political leadership to the process in the circumstances of existing coalition government instead of the expected national government. In fact, the President would have been able to give the political leadership to the process if he intended to serve one term and if he was neutral.
Under the prevailed political situation, when there was a strong political group in the opposition, highest echelons of the Sangha Community of the country expressed views that a new constitution was not necessary for the country. Truth was that election manifestos of Sri Lanka for decades were filled with the promises of abolishing the executive presidency. Although their view was politically motivated and reactionary in essence, the President and the Prime Minister kept mum over the issue.
In this situation it is not possible either to establish a new constitution or to give a solution to the ethnic problem of this country. Ethnocentric elements in the country believe that the ethnic problem of the country was over with the ending of the war. At the end of the war when Prabhakaran and his colleagues were killed, along with the sigh of relief that the war was over the political balance of power was readjusted unfavorably to the Tamils. At the time of the war Sri Lankan leaders were prepared to give a Federal solution to the problem and after ending the war they said that a solution of 13+ can be given which meant most probably a second chamber as proposed by the new draft constitution. After losing the power of the barrel of the gun, Tamils failed to achieve their objectives through the democratic process as happened in previous instances prior to the war l since Sri Lankan democracy means dictatorship of the majority.
In relation to divided ethno-religious groups, Sri Lanka is a country which depends on a limited backward population and which is run by a set of opportunist politicians. Most of the countries in the world are like this. Some powerful leaders of some of the countries openly challenged the backward thinking in relation to ethnocentrism of their respective populations. Mahatma Gandhi and Nelson Mandela were prominent examples. Some leaders such as Lee Kuan Yew took the country forward based on their political power. Out of the leaders of this country Mahinda Rajapaksa soon after ending the war and Maithripala Sirisena after coming to power in 2015 got this opportunity to rise to the level of Gandhi, Mandela or Lee but they have selected the dustbin of the history instead of immense prestige, due to greediness to personal and petty political gains.
To place the country in the path of nation building there should be a strong apolitical peoples movement comprising of fair-minded people of all ethnicities and followers of all religions, rather than depending solely on the politicians for that task.