By Jehan Perera –
There have been indications of a growing gap between the positions taken by the UNP and SLFP which are the two main constituent parties of the National Unity Government. Some months ago it took the form of Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe speaking positively in terms of international involvement in the country’s post-war accountability process while President Maithripala Sirisena said the reverse. At the present time the point of concern would be the fate of the Central Bank Governor Arjuna Mahendran. The SLFP has opposed his reappointment. On the other hand, the UNP led by the Prime Minister have expressed their confidence in the Governor’s contribution to the economy as a member of the government team. This is an issue on which the two parties will have to find a mutually acceptable solution if their relationship is not to be soured and they continue to cooperate on important issues as they have been doing so far for the past one and a half years since the election of the new government.
The defeat of the no-confidence motion against Finance Minister Ravi Karunanayake by a large 145 to 51 margin showed that the government’s majority in Parliament remains secure. The failure of the Joint Opposition to obtain the support of SLFP members who have joined the government was a major blow to their efforts to portray themselves as a government-in-waiting. Although members of the Joint Opposition continue to make political speeches that ostensibly have public backing, their weakness in Parliament was manifested by the magnitude of the defeat of the no-confidence motion they had presented with an appearance of confidence in themselves. There appears to be a fall in the public campaign of the Joint Opposition after this political debacle. Former coalition partners of theirs from the CWC and EPDP have joined the government. To make matters worse for them, one of their key leaders has been arrested on charges of financial fraud.
The Joint Opposition’s blighted hope was that SLFP members of the government would join them in supporting the no-confidence motion as it was against the Finance Minister who is from the UNP which has been the long standing rival of the SLFP. Had this occurred the vote of no-confidence would have become much more narrow, and more significantly a rift would have become more evident between the two coalition partners of the National Unity Government. However, President Maithripala Sirisena was able to exert his influence over his party members who had joined the government. To make his intentions clear, the President also stayed within his chambers in Parliament for the duration of the no-confidence motion thereby making a public display of his commitment to the National Unity Government. Indeed, this public display of commitment by the President would have halted the negative vote from amongst the SLFP group in Parliament and was the chief reason for the defeat of the Joint Opposition’s no-confidence motion with such a large majority.
At the present time the combination of the two main political parties in the Government of National Unity gives the government a solid majority to engage in political reform and constitutional reform. Both President Sirisena and Prime Minister Wickremesinghe who jointly head the government are non-racist leaders in whom the ethnic and religious minorities can place their trust. The relationship between the political leaders of the Tamil and Muslim parties and the government leadership bears out this trust. The trust and goodwill that exists between them at the highest levels of the polity provides an example to the people in the country at large. However, there have been other areas where the leaderships of the two main constituent parties of the government appear to have taken different positions. One would be the investigations into acts of impunity and corruption during the period of the Rajapaksa government.
These investigations have been proceeding slower than anticipated especially in the court of public opinion, which is judging the government very harshly on this issue. The blame for this has fallen on both sides. The SLFP members who are now part of the National Unity Government were also a part of the previous Rajapaksa government which stands accused of gross acts of impunity and corruption. It is not surprising that in these circumstances there is public speculation that the slow progress of the investigations is due to the natural reluctance of those whose past conduct is to be investigated to make their indictment for crimes any easier. On the other hand, there is also public speculation that the slow pace of the investigations is due to a deal that has been struck between those in power at the current time and those not in power.
It will be difficult to continue to develop public confidence if the positions taken by the two main constituent parties of the National Unity Government are in opposition to each other. Although the challenge mounted by the Joint Opposition appears to be diminishing, especially after the defeat of the no-confidence motion against the Finance Minister, the sentiments of SLFP voters would also need to be safeguarded. They would prefer a government that is totally SLFP. There are reports of a faction within the SLFP that wants to form their own government without any formal UNP participation but drawing from defecting members of the UNP. Similarly there are those with the UNP who would wish to form a government drawn entirely from the UNP and without SLFP participation except in the form of defectors. The need to conduct local government elections at some time in the future, but sooner rather than later, would set the UNP and SLFP against each other, which adds to the possibility of a weakening of the National Unity Government in the near future.
The formation of the National Unity Government with a substantial majority in Parliament which comes close to 2/3 of the seats in Parliament offers the country the best chance it has ever had to resolve its long outstanding problems, including the vexed one of the ethnic conflict. The political challenge today therefore is to ensure that the National Unity Government continues until such time as the major political problems which have come down the decades are finally resolved. The ethnic conflict is not the only issue to be tackled at the present time. Other issues that need to be responded to include restructuring the Sri Lankan economy to face the needs and opportunities of the global market; and responding to the UN Human Rights Council resolution of October 2015 without generating too much of political agitation within the country. Indeed the Prime Minister is reported to have said that he will work in silence and leave it to the people to decide later whether what was done was good or bad.
In keeping the National Unity Government together it is important that the leaders of the two main parties should closely consult each other and together establish the basic parameters of the government policies they wish to take forward. They demonstrated this ability during the presidential election campaign of January 2015. They reached mutual agreement on issues of good governance and tackling corruption and impunity. Whatever was said thereafter, during and in the immediate aftermath of the formation of the new government, was within the parameters that had already been set. Unfortunately, this close consultation and cooperation appears to have diminished at the present time. As a result there is a gap that has opened up between the statements of the two parties which can threaten the stability and effectiveness of the government in the longer period.
It appears that the UNP part of the government is focusing its attention on its international audience and is seeking to cater to their concerns in the hope of international aid and investment that can leap frog the economy to the 21st century. On the other hand, the SLFP part of the government is focused on the local audience, which is more interested in issues of social welfare and national sovereignty. Both these approaches are necessary for the country and its people to prosper. This suggests that the President and Prime Minister who head the two main constituent parties of the National Unity Government s should devise a mechanism that would ensure that they consult with each other and agree on the parameters of all nationally significant policies prior to separately making assertions about them.