22 May, 2024


The ‘Jathika’ & ‘Vijathika’ Of Coalitions

By Uditha Devapriya

Uditha Devapriya

Uditha Devapriya

On August 24, 1931, the then Prime Minister of Britain Ramsay MacDonald attempted to resign over a disagreement with his own party with how the country’s finances should be handled. His king, George V, advised him to form a coalition, one which would obtain representation from all parties, including his own (Labour).

That coalition, referred to as the “First National Ministry”, was dissolved just two months later, only to be resurrected following a General Election. The reason was simple. The economy was in a slump, in no small part due to the Great Depression. There was a need for a coalition and a good one too.

By 1945, more than 20 years later, Britain saw or rather underwent five more coalitions, the most crucial of which was headed by Winston Churchill during the Second World War. Characteristically, every party involved played a role.

What’s notable here is that these coalitions weren’t formed for nothing. There were reasons and all too often a national interest was at stake. In none of these instances were democracy and good governance deficits. Crucial outcomes were warranted and for this all parties needed to get together. Even if it meant the absence of that cornerstone of any functioning democracy, an opposition.

Maithripala - SLFP 20th August 15 1st meeting with the elected MPs

Photo| President Maithripala Sirisena engaged in a conversation regarding the future of political measures with the newly appointed SLFP MPs yesterday morning (20) at the Presidential Secretariat.

Well, it’s confirmed. A National Government will be set up here. We don’t know who’s to be represented and who’s to opt out. A true National Government can only come with the participation of every party and ideology, including those who espouse federalism, nationalism, capitalism, communism, and yes, even anarchism. For that to happen though, two questions need to be asked: is there enough provision in the Constitution for that and if so, do we really need to go ahead?

Two commentators debated on this on MTV’s Newsline the other day. Bandula Jayasekara, diplomat and writer known for his outspokenness, was more accommodating. Rusiripala Tennakoon, trade unionist and political analyst, was more critical. He named names and flipped unturned stones. More importantly, he went on to answer the above two questions and that with tact and objectivity.

His take was based on two premises.

The first. Constitutionally speaking there are provisions and guidelines for forming a National Government here. Specifically, Article 45 states that the president, having consulted the Prime Minister if necessary, can appoint non-Cabinet Ministers from the Parliament and that these Ministers are then answerable to the Cabinet. This amounts to a National Government or coalition.

The second. Such a coalition can be effective only if the constituent parties (including the head of the alliance) subordinate themselves to a national interest. Such an interest is birthed by a national crisis, including financial meltdowns (as with the MacDonald era) or a war (as with the Churchill era). An interest which “sweeps off” party politics, therefore, can only arise through a crisis. Such crises are rare.

Having made these points, Tennakoon asked a question: do we really need a National Government?

Consider this. There’s no war. The economy’s doing fine, at least relatively. We have a serious democracy deficit but then again so does almost every other country. We are not in Lebanon and for this reason we don’t really need consensual politicking which robs an opposition from the people. Sure, we’ve been told that there’s to be rhetoric-less good governance in the days and months to come, and judging by the people elected into Parliament that seems to be true.

Do we need a coalition for that though? On the face of it, maybe. Maithripala Sirisena is president and also leader of the SLFP. Ranil Wickremesinghe, his foremost backer in the January election, is prime minister and leader of the UNP. Forget other parties. Forget other party leaders. For the time being, an alliance between these two means, as a sine qua non, a coalition.

But what’s it all about? As Tennakoon rightly pointed out, a National Government must subordinate itself to a national interest. What do we have here? For the past six months, all we saw was one party playing second fiddle to the other! A farce? Well, almost. Not surprisingly, how both parties conduct themselves in relation to each other for the next 60 months will be judged on this basis.

Right now, here’s what counts. Coalitions aren’t just formed. There are forces that breed them. More importantly, history shapes and chisels the right moment for their formation (and of course their split). It’s ridiculous therefore to expect them to be made for a (perceived) need to ensure good governance.

Put it this way: those who script in a “jathika” into a coalition while castrating a headless opposition and thereby perpetuating party-politics are actually “doing” a “vijathika”.

No, I am not suggesting that this is where Sri Lanka is heading. There’s every reason to pin faith on the UNP and the program it’s carrying. Then again though, do we really need a National Government for this? Let’s not forget, after all, that without a viable and strong opposition (the UPFA meets this easily) neither good governance nor democracy can be sustained for long.

If such coalitions are formed to ward off crises, which need unconditional and across-party-line support, then a virtual absence of those crises would ruin democracy if we still opt for a coalition government and what results is an opposition-less parliament. History has shown what happens in that context, both here and elsewhere. Best not to tempt it.

Rusiripala Tennakoon has made a point, hence. A very good point. So good that it merits assessment.

*Uditha Devapriya is a freelance writer – Email: udakdev1@gmail.com. Blog: fragmenteyes.blogspot.com

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Latest comments

  • 0

    Uditha, I agree with you. However recent politics is all about politics and so we shall see more wrangling I think. Did you get a chance to talk to the Prime Minister and advise against this? Did anyone?

    I did not place my vote for the candidates to cross over or betray their party manifesto.

    Opposition parties can support the UNP on a case by case basis without blanket approval of all that is to come.

  • 3

    An interesting analysis, indeed.

    However, what the writer fails to point to is that the vast majority of those elected from the SLFP coalition (and likely to be among our “new” rulers)are the SAME corrupt and violent individuals whose track record speaks far louder than any outsider could and whose defeat was DELIBERATELY ensured by the vast majority of the population of this country when they elected Maithripala Sirisena as President over MR!

    You now have the ludicrous situation of those that the country chose to dump in the political dustbin when it defeated MR likely to be in decision-making positions, running the country!

    What’s next? MR being made Leader of the House and Chamal back as Speaker?

    Is this the result we, as a country, sought on August 17th or do we suffer from a brand of national schizophrenia unheard of anywhere in the world at any time?!

  • 0

    Good presentation
    Just slipping one point
    A coalition of some sort has to be there for the country to move forward. But calling any form of Coalition a National Govt looks like a step to circumvent the limitations in our constitution not to increase the Cabinet beyond 30 and 40!

  • 0

    The General Election resulted in bringing in a large number of MR loyalists (94 without Duminda Dissanayake) to parliament. The deal is between Ranil and MR now and they are seasoned politicians. They will hatch a deal. Both need each other to survive. Chandkrika and MY3 has no credibility with SLFP any solution they force using position will not last. So it is clear there will be a deal and that will be between Ranil and MR yes MY3 will be blessing it. All the rest is a side show for the gullible.

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