By Malinda Seneviratne –
This should have been easy. It has been easy all these years. Hold election, release results, count numbers, pick the leader of the party which returned the most candidates to Parliament and appoint him/her as Prime Minister. Then Parliament convenes, the Speaker is elected, the Leader of the Opposition is selected and Cabinet is appointed. Seems pretty straightforward.
It seems easy because not only does the the United National Front for Good Governance (UNFGG) have 106 seats, the coalition’s main ally, Maithripala Sirisena has effectively looted the runner-up, the United People’s Freedom Party (UPFA), dragging its main constituent the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) out AND placing in the UPFA’s driving seat, i.e. the post of General Secretary, a loyalist. Adding insult to injury, violating all norms of decency and giving the proverbial finger to the spirit of democracy, Sirisena smuggled into Parliament 7 loyalists who had been rejected at the polls. Those 7 owe him. Add 7 to 106 and you get 113. That’s an absolute majority.
There’s a price to pay though, apparently. The President wants his party to be part of the Government; hence all this talk of a ‘National Government’. Negotiations between the UNP and the SLFP to divide the ministerial cake, and machinations to secure preferred portfolios to divide the goodies are natural outcomes.
It cannot be easy for Ranil Wickremesinghe, Leader of the UNP. If we didn’t have the 19th Amendment there’d be a long line of MPs outside the PM’s door virtually begging for party membership and a portfolio. But Article 46 (1) of the 19th Amendment to the Constitution limits the Cabinet to 30 members and so Wickremesinghe cannot (unlike Mahinda Rajapaksa) wave portfolio carrots at the Opposition.
A minority government is clearly an option but he would have to count on the JVP or the TNA to remain neutral in the event of a No-Confidence Motion. It’s a risk.
As big a risk is what’s currently under discussion. The term ‘national’ is being used too easily. Politicians can use any word or term to describe even the polar opposite of its meaning. We saw what JR Jayewardene’s ‘Dharmista Samaajaya’ was all about. It’s English version was ‘A just and free society’. We saw that ‘justice’ and we experienced that ‘freedom’. The current avatar of that is yahapaalanaya. The first signs are not hopeful. But just so people know what’s what, a dictionary definition might help.
NATIONAL: na·tion·al. ˈnaSH(ə)n(ə)l. Adjective. Of or relating to a nation; common to or characteristic of a whole nation. Example: “This policy may have been in the national interest.”
Now consider the word/term ‘coalition’ and things become more clear:
COALITION: co·a·li·tion. kōəˈliSH(ə)n. Noun. An alliance for combined action, especially a temporary alliance of political parties forming a government. Example: “A coalition of conservatives and disaffected democrats”.
It looks like the compilers of this dictionary were looking at Sri Lanka’s current political situation!
These distinctions are immaterial as far as constitutional article and its interpretation are concerned. Let’s look at what the 19th Amendment says about ‘national’.
There is ambiguity in Article 46 (4) and 46 (5) of the 19th Amendment. In a situation where no single party obtains an absolute majority there’s provision for a ‘National Government’ [46(4)], with ‘National’ defined in 46(5) as ‘A Government formed by the party that obtains the highest number of seats together with other recognized political parties or independent groups (emphasis mine).’ The interjection of the word ‘all’ or else ‘any’ before ‘other’ would have resolved the issue. As it stands the courts may have to interpret whether a UNP-SLFP affair is legitimate or whether it should be a grand orgy of the political. Speaking of courts, we have to say that the President has demonstrated that he’s no different from his predecessors. Read, ‘he can sway’.
Even if that issue is resolved there’s the inherent problem of ‘living together’ with people who have sorry track records as ministers and those who have been rejected by the electorate, not to mention the trust-deficit of those who don’t give a hoot to things like ‘mandates’. Presidential machinations have not helped, this must also be noted.
Ranil Wickremesinghe obviously believes that this coalition/national government is best under the circumstances. If his conclusions are drawn from promises made in the run up to the Presidential Election, there’s something to applaud there. It might imply that he is serious about securing the numbers necessary for reforms as envisaged in the now dusty 20th Amendment, a Code of Conduct for Parliamentarians and the Right to Information Act in the main. If these can be done in the honeymoon period of this strange marriage, then even if it ends on the rocks, the people would have benefitted.
There are many, however, who can pull the rug from under his feet. He knows what Chandrika Kumaratunga did to him in late 2003. He knows there’s no love lost between the UNP and the SLFP. He knows all about political machinations to retain power. He knows that his own party’s human resources are pretty thin. He knows that there are sections of the Opposition that will not suffer in silence the errors of his Ministers, especially in dealing with the Eelam lobby or those that feed Eelamist projects knowingly or unknowingly.
He has ‘top men’ who have dubious track records, some as ministers (in the last 8 months) and some in the party who did nothing during those long years in the Opposition but emerged just as the tide turned. He has good men of integrity that he brought in through the National List in 2010 who have not only served him well but have won the approval of the people at the polls. So there are those who will strengthen him and others who will drag him down. And then he has to deal with the Mother of All Enemies: Self.
He needs no more proof that Maithripala Sirisena is a shrewd politician who will use the still considerable powers of his office to achieve his objectives (he thinks nothing of dumping mandates in trash cans). At the right time.
It is not easy for Wickremesinghe. But for better or worse, the majority of the people have placed trust in him. He has to be clear. Forthright. Courageous. And look over his shoulder from time to time.