By Jehan Perera –
Former President Mahinda Rajapaksa has predicted the collapse of the government in the New Year and his return to power. He is demonstrating the same tenacity that stood him in good stead during his long stint in politics prior to rising to become the undisputed leader of the country. He was kept down by his party leaders but prevailed in the end. After his unexpected defeat at the presidential election of January 2015 that he called prematurely he has been tenaciously struggling to stage a political come back to the centre stage of power. Together with his supporters in the Joint Opposition he has been able to demonstrate mass support among a section of the people on numerous occasions but so far has been unable to convert that into real power.
The former president is likely to continue to face this problem of being unable to convert mass support into political power so long as President Maithripala Sirisena and Prime Minister Ranil Wickemesinghe continue to engage in coalition politics. Together they are able to muster a 2/3 majority in parliament. This was seen as recently as last month when the budget was approved at all stages by a 2/3 majority. Power lies in the control of government. The stability and strength of the government lies in the continued willingness of the president and prime minister to work together in the realization that each needs the other’s support to continue to stay in power until the next general elections which are three years away.
The understanding that the president and prime minister have about the need to work together is not necessarily shared by senior members of their political parties who have a shorter time frame than they. It is likely that many members of the UNP and SLFP prefer to govern the country by themselves rather than sharing power with each other. They would focus on the fact that they will have more resources to themselves if they govern alone. It will also speed up the decision making process which be slow in a coalition government. The desire of each party to govern alone can be seen in the statements and outbursts that periodically emanate from the members of the two parties about each other. It is these outbursts that create an impression of governmental instability that the former president is focusing upon.
There are three realities of coalition politics. The first is that decision making will be contested and will therefore be slow. The UNP and SLFP have two different political philosophies. One is more pro-business and internationalist while the other is more redistributionist and nationalist. The president and prime minister represent these two value systems which would be in opposition to each other in normal circumstances. What makes their combination effective is that decisions that are eventually made will tend to include concerns from both ends of the political spectrum and hence will have a greater degree of political acceptability. Examples of this would be the tensions that prevailed but which yielded sustainable outcomes in the passage of the 19th Amendment to the constitution which kept the presidency intact and the change of Governor of the Central Bank in the aftermath of the bond scandal.
The second feature of coalition politics is the need to share power. This can be seen in the preliminary rejection of the Development (Special Provisions) Bill which had been approved by the cabinet of minister. The purpose of this law is to make it easier for investors to start economic projects. At the present time investors have to go to many different government agencies to get approvals to start their projects. They might have to get approvals from the local government authority in the area in which the project is to be located, the Board of Investment and the Central Environmental Authority and many others besides. Getting all these approvals can be a time consuming and frustrating process. The new law seeks to set up a one-stop process to minimize delays. Prime Minister Wickremesinghe has said the Development (Special Provisions) Bill is aimed at accelerating the country’s development to meet the expectations of the public.
However, SLFP members have said they would oppose the government’s efforts to create a super ministry, which they allege would vest concentrated powers in a single minister. They fear that it would usurp the powers of cabinet ministers under whose purview various regulatory agencies of the state come under, as well as the provincial councils. The SLFP controlled provincial councils have vetoed the new law. A one stop process is important for the country’s development, and many other countries have adopted it to facilitate investments that create jobs and wealth. In this situation the way forward would be for the government to ensure that both UNP and SLFP members share decision making power in the one stop process.
The third feature of coalition politics is to postpone the competition between them. This accounts for the repeated postponement of local government elections. These elections have now been postponed for nearly two years. Various technical reasons are given. However, the political reality is that the SLFP in particular would not like to go to the polls where they would have to compete against the Joint Opposition in which many of their members are active and to which the former president is giving leadership. The SLFP’s reluctance to go to the polls also suits the UNP at this time. As the party that is in effective charge of the government, the UNP is shouldering the responsibility for putting the country’s economy into shape after it was weighed down by the heavy debt repayments incurred by the former government. The coming year will be one in which the government will wish to consolidate its economic programme, which will be the most important determinant of whether it can obtain the continued electoral support of the electorate.
In this context, it is unlikely that the government will need to decide whether or not to hold a referendum on constitutional change. Minister of National Languages and Co-existence, Mano Ganesan has warned that a referendum on a new constitution cannot be easily won. The Minister emphasized that the government should first and foremost be safeguarded. He has highlighted that the constitutional amendments were needed to be set forth so as they would not be rejected in a Referendum. “We have to make an effort for a while to avoid a Referendum. My view is that if we go for a Referendum, we must be ready to win. For that, instead of a completely new Constitution, we have to think of amendments to key areas,” the Minister stated. He said that the extremist elements would vehemently protest the power devolution proposals, including the police and land powers, recommended by the subcommittee on centre-periphery relations.
The more likely scenario in 2017 therefore will be one of changing the constitution to the extent possible utilizing the coalition government’s 2/3 majority in parliament but without going in for a referendum. This is the model followed by Colombia to consolidate its peace process between the government and rebel FARC militants. The Colombian government failed in October to win a referendum that sought the approval of the people for the peace agreement, much to its own shock and the shock of the international community which awarded the Nobel Peace Prize to those who were architects of the peace agreement. However, in December this peace agreement came into force by being passed by parliament with a unanimous vote in favour. Two tenets of the original agreement, a transitional justice system and a mechanism to allow FARC leaders to participate in politics, were altered slightly in response to concerns raised by political factions that campaigned against the deal. As in Colombia, if this model is followed in Sri Lanka, it does not necessarily mean that the changes made will be any less far reaching or important. Politics, whether coalition or not, remains the art of the possible.