By Jehan Perera –
President Maithripala Sirisena’s recent criticisms of his partner in the government coalition, the UNP, have sent signals that the UNP-SLFP alliance may be ending sooner rather than later. At the general elections of August 2015, the two parties entered into an agreement to be in partnership for a period of two years. Those two years have ended and it appears that their partnership may be ending too. Among the criticisms that the president has made are those about governmental involvement in the Central Bank bond scam case and the middling performance of the economy. The president declared his intention to take over the reins of the economy through the National Economic Council he had set up three months ago.
The media reported that it was not clear if the president would take over the three key economy-related portfolios currently held by the UNP. The National Policies and Economic Affairs portfolio is held by Prime Minister Wickremesinghe while the UNP also holds Finance and Development Strategies and International Trade portfolios. There was no reaction from the Prime Minister or the UNP. The president’s statements have been cast in a negative light by sections of the media and those who voted for the president at presidential elections of January 2015 at the urgings of the UNP. Most of the president’s votes came from traditional UNP supporters who accepted the decision of the UNP leadership to field Maithripala Sirisena as the common opposition candidate. The president’s criticisms of the UNP have alienated many of them.
Members of the government from the UNP too have found the president’s statements to be disquieting. They have said as much from their political platforms. Even a cabinet meeting presided over by the president became a site of acrimony. The media reported that the president had walked out of a cabinet meeting after delivering a lengthy speech in which he had outlined the sacrifices he had been prepared to make, the risks he had taken and the issues relating to the establishment of good governance on which he wanted action taken. However, neither the walk out that he staged, nor his criticisms of his coalition partners, are likely to deter the joint UNP-SLFP search for a unifying formula that would benefit all concerned and keep the common foe, the SLPP, at bay.
The problem facing President Sirisena is not an easy one to resolve. The SLFP is about to face the local government election while divided into two. A section of the party is being led by former president Mahinda Rajapaksa and is contesting as a rival party. The SLPP led by the former president will be competing for the same SLFP vote base with the SLFP led by the president. Neither the president nor former president can hope to get the votes of either the UNP, JVP or ethnic minority parties. They have to compete for the SLFP vote. The SLFP vote bank has traditionally been nurtured on an anti-UNP platform. Both the SLFP led by the president and the SLPP led by the former president have to compete for this SLFP vote. The president’s strong criticism of the UNP is meant to resonate with the SLFP voter.
President Sirisena’s second way to maximize his party’s votes at the local government election has been assert that his stay in power as president will be longer than the five years to which he is entitled. The president even went to the extent of appealing to the Supreme Court to decide on whether he was entitled to a five or six year term. A longer term would have given the SLFP voter an added reason to vote for an SLFP that will continue to enjoy the power and patronage of the presidency. Due to the fact that his faction of the SLFP has only about 43 MPs in parliament, the SLFP members who follow the president realize that they cannot bargain on equal terms with the UNP which has 106 MPs unless backed by the presidency. Therefore preserving the presidency and the power and patronage it brings with it is a political necessity to the SLFP.
In the aftermath of the Supreme Court opinion that the president is only entitled to five years in office, and not six, the president’s supporters are claiming that he will contest a second time. Although the president swore in the past that he will only be a one term president, he has been non-committal on the issue of whether he will run for a second term or not. The president’s latest stance is to say that he will decide at the appropriate time. The reason again is that preserving the presidency and the power and patronage it brings with it is the only way to induce SLFP voters to vote for the SLFP rather than for its rival, the SLPP. Those who are of the view that a continuation of the UNP-SLFP alliance is better than any other alternative need to find a solution that is mutually beneficial rather than criticizing the president for going back on his word.
The main feature of governance at the present time is not the slowness of decisionmaking or continuation of corruption. On the contrary it is that the two main political parties in the country, which have been traditional rivals, are working together which brings in an in-built check and balance system to the government. Neither party can do as it wants in the government, which is extremely positive. In the past ruling party politicians used to go and sit in the chairs of OICs (Officers in Charge) at police stations or in the chairs of GAs (Government Agents) at the district secretariats. Now this is no longer possible and no longer happens because the other party in power is there to put a stop to such nonsense. This is also the reason why there is freedom from the fear which prevailed during the period of the last government, which enjoyed unbridled power and no checks and balances.
Accompanying these positive features of the two main political parties working together is the opportunity to resolve the ethnic conflict through a political solution that has eluded governments since the first attempt was made in 1957. The constitutional debate that took place in parliament in November before the announcement of local government elections gave an indication that most parties in parliament felt that such a solution was necessary and should be strived for. However, since the declaration of local government elections, there is little political discussion about a political solution to the ethnic conflict as the SLPP and joint opposition have taken up nationalist positions. A strong electoral performance by the SLPP would be interpreted that there is opposition to a political solution.
It is significant that Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe has not reacted adversely to the president’s criticisms of his party and its doings. On the contrary he has directed his party members to desist from any criticism of the president. It appears that the UNP leadership is aware of the political needs of the president and is willing to accommodate them even at the cost of being publicly criticized by him. The worst case scenario for the government, and its plans for national reconciliation, would be a winning performance by the SLPP and anything that could be done to reduce the margin of its victory (and increase the margin of its defeat) would be in the interests of the parties in government and of a political solution to the ethnic conflict.