By Saliya Pieris –
As Maithripala Sirisena and Ranil Wickremesinghe begin a new term of cohabitation they need to lesrn lessons from the past and take into account the new balance of power brought about by the 19th amendment and the results of the Parliamentary elections.
The reality is that the new regime has two power centres. The President continues to wield executive power and remains at the helm of government, although no longer constitutionally entitled to hold cabinet portfolios, except for Defence, Mahaweli and the Environment. The Prime Minister effectively controls Parliament and will actually run the administration.
Although President Sirisena may be bound by the advice of the Prime Minister in making ministerial appointments there is no doubt that the new Cabinet will be a product of consensus and compromise between the President and Prime Minister. As in other periods of cohabitation between the President and Prime Minister such as in 1994, 2001-2004, the President and the Prime Minister will have to effectively share power in the next few years.
While there has been talk on further constitutional change and the total abolition of the executive presidency, any further move to dilute the Presidency is unlikely to be welcomed by the President’s camp. The reality is that the UNP will have to learn to work with the President within the present framework. Any attempt to reduce the President’s powers any further will not be conducive to the rapport which should exist between the President and the Prime Minister.
Both President Sirisena and Mr. Wickremesinghe will need to be vary of people with different motives who may try to drive a wedge between the two of them. In one instance UNPers were critical of the President appointing key persons of the anti Ranil camp of the UNPto various posts in his office who continued to openly attack the Premier. On the other hand one of the complaints by the President’s camp was that the President was not adequately consulted on matters of government and that he was effectively being sidelined in the decision making process and being made to feel isolated. One such example was when the government clearly refused to heed the President’s advice suggesting the resignation of the Central Bank Governor after the Treasury Bond scandal.
The success of the first term of the Presidency of Maithripala Sirisena and the fourth term of Prime Minister Wickremesinghe will largely depend on the maturity of these two senior politicians and their ability to work together in the spirit of consensus and compromise as they cohabit in power. One of the reasons for the downfall of the UNP government in 2004 was the constant friction which existed between President Kumaratunge and the UNP Cabinet of Ministers and the political manoeuvring which occured. Given that there is no rancour between the present President and Prime Minister, cohabitation this time around may be easier than before.
As I had opined in an earlier article , with the 19th amendment the President should refrain from getting involved in the day to day aspects of governance, but should exercise his executive power in a supervisory role over the government of the day. He should use his powers to guide the new government and to ensure it does not deviate from the agreed path. In France the day to day running of the government is the task of the Prime Minister and the Prime Minister is held responsible by the President for failure in government. The practice of previous Presidents of bypassing their Ministers and exercising powers through Secretaries to Ministries should be avoided.
One of the biggest challenges for the new government will be in managing the expectations of the disparate parties of the new coalition ranging from the JHU of Patali Champika Ranawaka to the SLMC of Rauff Hakeem, the ACMC of Rishard Bathiudeen and the TPA of Mano Ganeshan.
Entering the new coalition is also the SLFP. A national government will find quite a few Ministers with questionable loyalties, who owe their election not to the President nor to the Prime Minister but to former President Mahinda Rajapaksa. Will they function as genuine partners in a coalition or be sulking partners who while away their time waiting for an opportune moment to strike to bring back Mahinda Rajapaksa. What of Mahinda Rajapaksa who will continue to lurk in the shadows?
Another aspect of the new political firmament will be how the SLFP is managed by the President. If the SLFP joins the national government, who will lead the opposition? It will be untenable for part of the SLFP to serve in the government and another part to serve in the opposition under the same leadership of Maithripala Sirisena. If part of the SLFP remains in opposition it will be impossible for Maithripala to give leadership to them. If the entire SLFP joins the new government what happens to the pro Rajapakse SLFP and non SLFP UPFA MPs? Will they sit as backbenchers of the regime or will they sit in opposition? Will the opposition be led by Mahinda Rajapaksa who has presently declined that office or will it be the likes of Dinesh Gunawardene? If the SLFP sits with the government will the leadership of the Opposition go to the TNA that being the next largest party in Parliament?
If the SLFP joins the government en masse what will the fate of the criminal investigations be? Will the SLFP members of the new regime want the government to downplay the investigations on bribery, fraud, corruption and murder now directed at key politicians in the former regime and their relatives? Any dilution of these probes will be unacceptable to the Sirisena-Wickremesinghe electorate.
With all these questions and endless possibilities, the government will also have to meet the expectations of its supporters. Some may be economic while others political including demands for a solution to the national problem. The regime will be expected to meet the expectations of the Tamil people in the North as to accountabilty and reconciliation as well as the expectations of Muslims who felt they were under seige in the past. These expectations may well be at variance with those of UNP supporters in the rest of the country especially the majority of the Sinhalese.
The biggest failure of the 2001 UNP regime was that it failed to meet the economic expectations of its supporters.
The Prime Minister will also have to guard himself against allegations of cronyism. One of the criticisms levelled at the Premier is that he unlike President J R Jayewardene fails to look beyond his friends and associates in choosing people for public office. He is often found fault with for having too much allegiance to the old school ties. Some of the new appointments to Parliament on the National List , appointments to the Cabinet in January 2015 as well as appointments to various government institutions have been the subject of criticism. A key hallmark of a successful leader is the ability to select his team successfully and the Premier must demonstrate his ability to select a good team.
Finally the biggest enemy the new government will have to face is the enemy within. That is the enemy of arrogance which comes with power.
If there is one single word which can be attributed to the downfall of Mahinda Rajapaksa, that word is not corruption, nor nepotism nor family bandism nor thuggery. The one word which would encompass the reason for the fall of the former President is arrogance.
From the time of his war victory to the time of his defeat on the morning of January 9th 2015, it was this all pervasive arrogance which defeated Mahinda Rajapaksa . By sheer arrogance MR , his two brothers , his sons and his ministers demonstrated an inability to listen, an inability to tolerate dissent and an inability to understand and empathise with a majority of the people of the country.
It is this arrogance that President Rajapaksa showed when after the war victory he made a speech saying there were no more minorities in Sri Lanka, but patriots and non patriots. The same arrogance was shown when he showed disdain towards public protest and when his forces shot demonstrators in Katunayaka and Weliweriya. It was this arrogance that led him to tamper unashamedly with the judiciary culminating in the removal of Dr. Bandaranayake and the appointment of Mohan Peiris as Chief Justice.
If there is anything that the new government should be cautious of in the comings weeks, months and years is from becoming arrogant and from permitting its members from becoming so. Already some members of the new government are showing signs of arrogance which comes with power. The recent altercation between a Deputy Minister with the police and his subsequent non appearance in Court, are early signs of what power can do to people. The government must reign in those prone towards abusing their power and who are prone towards corruption and thuggery and who throw their weight about.
It is well for the newly elected government and its members to remember the words of Thomas Jefferson when he said ” But I hope our wisdom will grow with our power, and teach us, that the less we use our power, the greater it will be”.