By S. I. Keethaponcalan –
President Mahinda Rajapaksa, like it or not, provided Sri Lanka with what could be termed an autocratic stability, which helped the country in terms of foreign investment. The Chinese and other investors felt safe pumping their resources into the system. However, the change of government in January 2015 had the potential to push the country into a state of instability. This seems to have come true with the current tussle over the issue of dissolution of parliament and the general election. The political system is now operating in a peculiar set of realities and philosophies. A minority government is in place while the party that commands absolute majority in the national legislature operates as the main opposition without making a big fuss about it.
Partly due to this complicated reality, Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe and his government want parliament dissolved in April so that a fresh election could be held this year. The Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP), which still commands the majority in parliament, opposes the dissolution and its leaders have indicated that they are ready to form the government if Ranil Wickramesinghe resigns in April.
President Sirisena, who has the constitutional authority to dissolve parliament, seems to be facing a dilemma between his party and the voters who elected him to power. Conflicting Contradictory reports are emerging from Colombo. Some suggest that the president is leaning more towards a late election while others point to the desire to comply with the United National Party (UNP) plea. Therefore, presently it is not clear whether the election will be held this year or after its term expires in 2016. The timing of the election could also have an impact on the outcome. Therefore, this issue leads to uncertainty and perhaps a sense of instability.
When Mahinda Rajapaksa decided to call an early presidential election, it was widely assumed that parliament would be dissolved immediately after the election. There were two reasons for this. Until Sirisena came forward to contest as the common opposition candidate, Rajapaksa was expected to win the election and in the past winning presidential candidates have used the victory as a launching pad to win parliamentary elections. Hence, the expectation that Rajapaksa would go for the general election in 2015.
Upsetting Rajapaksa and his plans, Maithripala Sirisena won the presidential election. Although, President Sirisena could have also dissolved parliament, his realities were different. Since he won the presidential election with the help of the UNP-led coalition, Sirisena wanted to give the coalition an opportunity to form the administration, which led to the present minority government. Moving beyond April or May with the same parliament, although legal, seems illogical and problematic for two main reasons.
First, providing an opportunity to the UNP to form the government in the immediate aftermath of the presidential election seemed reasonable and logical because people gave a mandate for a change. The voter obviously wanted a new administration. However, it is immoral to continue with a minority government for too long especially when the opposition party still has a clear majority in the national legislature. It makes a mockery of the democracy and good governance that the voter mandated in January.
Second, it leads to instability and could undermine economic gains, because the present government could be toppled at any time with a nod from the SLFP leadership. Therefore, there is no guarantee that the present policies and agendas will continue for a substantial period of time. Uncertainty is anathema for investors. The SLFP leadership has already been threatening the government with no-confidence motions and the possibility of dismissal. Pressure from the SLFP could also force the administration to adopt a soft approach towards the allegations of corruption and abuse of power levelled mostly against members and supporters of the former (SLFP led) government.
It seems that it is President Sirisena who is preventing the SLFP from effectively challenging the UNP in parliament. It is already evident that if the election is held in 2016, the UNP could lose its momentum. Consequently the election could be lost. The present administration’s fate therefore, depends on the president and the SLFP. This does not augur well for political stability.
There are two possibilities if parliament is not dissolved in April. One, the UNP could continue the administration despite its promises to conclude the 100-day program and an election immediately thereafter. The problem is that the longer it takes to conduct the next parliamentary election, the fewer seats the party can expect to win. This is one reason why the UNP is eager to have the election soon. At the same time it would like to face the election eventually as the caretaker government, rather than as the opposition party, due to the advantages of state resources in an election. This would encourage the UNP to continue with the minority government, which is not preferable for the reasons discussed above.
The second option for the UNP is to resign in April if parliament is not dissolved. Then the president will invite the SLFP to form the government. If one goes by the recent statements of frontline SLFP leaders, the party will accept the invitation and form the government. This would be totally legal, but unprincipled. The January election was not only about Rajapaksa. It was about the SLFP and its style of governance. It was about a systemic change. This was why candidate Sirisena and the opposition alliance promised constitutional reform. Lack of good governance was an important issue in that election. The people, rejecting Rajapaksa and his government, voted for a structural change or at least adjustments. Therefore, an SLFP government without an election would go against the will of the people. An SLFP president and an SLFP government without an election would mark a continuation rather than a change. If the SLFP want to form the government, it should win the general election and come to power.
The SLFP obviously prefers a late election because it will have adequate time to disrepute the UNP and convince the people that the party cannot provide the structural changes and relief the party promised. The SLFP will also expect the people to forget the problems they faced under its administration. It is imperative to note that the SLFP has already slowed down the constitutional amendment project with the demand to change the electoral system as well. It is believed the party will not support constitutional amendments without electoral changes.
Ultimately, the authority is with the president to decide whether to dissolve parliament in April or not. A decision to delay the dissolution will implicitly help the cause of the SLFP, his party. He also has a responsibility to the people who voted for him and the political coalition that helped him win the presidential election. This is the dilemma he seems to be facing presently. Depending on the decision, he could be accused of supporting one or the other party.
Yet, if he has the determination to respect the public will expressed in the January election, he would dissolve parliament after 100 days and allow the people to elect a legitimate government. This would also allow him to resolve problems of uncertainties caused by the present predicament. After the election, regardless of the winners and losers, he can lead an administration with legitimacy. Therefore, the president should dissolve parliament in April or May and call for a fresh general election.
*Dr. S. I. Keethaponcalan is Chair of the Conflict Resolution Department, Salisbury University, Maryland.