By Jehan Perera –
The demand for the dissolution of parliament is getting increasingly compelling. Civil society leaders, such as the Ven Maduluwave Sobitha, who led the movement for good governance during the presidential elections have come out strongly to insist that President Maithripala SIrisisena should use his presidential powers to dissolve parliament and hold the much anticipated general elections. Public opinion surveys and everyday conversations on the topic indicate that the general population is getting disillusioned with the present situation and agree that general elections to elect a new government with a parliamentary majority are necessary. There is recognition that the present minority government led by the UNP cannot deliver the changes that the people want for the reason that it does not command a majority in parliament. The UNP is alive to this problem and has been demanding the dissolution of parliament.
Initially in the aftermath of the presidential election it was expected that President Sirisena would dissolve parliament sometime in April in keeping with his election manifesto that laid out a 100 day plan of action which was to be completed by the end of April. However, the president has been showing a reluctance to dissolve parliament. There are likely to at least two reasons for this. The first is that prior to going to the polls, the president is keen to heal the rift in his party that has come about because of the bid by former president Mahinda Rajapaksa to obtain a position of leadership within the SLFP. Along with the rest of his party, President Sirisena realises that going in for general elections with a divided party is a recipe for defeat that can undermine his own credibility as the new leader of the SLFP. He has said there is no room for two leaders.
Second, the president is committed to delivering on the main promises he made during the presidential election campaign prior to going in for another election. There is a national consensus that the preferential voting system which leads to an unhealthy and often violent inner party competition and expenditure of vast sums of money within political parties for votes at the expense of others in the same party needs to be changed for good governance. In a recent meeting with civil society members of the “March 12 Movement” led by the election monitoring organisation PAFFREL, the president spoke of his own experiences in contesting elections under the previous electorate-based first-past-the-post system and the present district-based proportional voting system. He said that there had been a huge increase in his own election campaign expenses between 1989 and 2010 and this system needed to be reformed.
During the discussion with the civil society members, President Sirisena showed that he was prepared to think through issues rather than look at them superficially. While welcoming and signing the document, he demonstrated clarity of thought in critiquing the March 12 resolution which laid out 8 principles on which the candidature of prospective politicians should be ascertained. He came across as a public educator in his manner of analysis. One of the conclusions of the discussion was that the massive increase in expenses during elections was a root cause of the corruption that accompanies the political careers of so many who are elected to represent the people. The president’s commitment to the passage of the 20th Amendment to the constitution is due to his belief that this is the best opportunity to put in place a system of governance that will ensure good governance in the future.
The present parliamentary and government configuration gives the president a 2/3 majority to enable constitutional change. This is due to the dependence that the minority UNP government has on him to keep it afloat and the majority SLFP opposition has due to the fact that he is president of the SLFP. The president’s role was seen when he championed the 19th Amendment and ensured that it was past with the requisite 2/3 majority in parliament although the political parties were at odds with one another on the issue of the amendment. A similar situation has arisen with the 20th Amendment with the different political parties saying different things about it. The cabinet has approved a parliament of 237 members, whereas the UNP is of the view that the figure should be 225, the SLFP insists on 255 and the ethnic minority parties call for a double vote as found is some countries that follow the mixed proportional and first-past-the-post system that the 20th Amendment envisages.
In these circumstances it can be understood that President Sirisena sees the present parliamentary configuration as one that needs to be used if the 20th Amendment is to be passed at all. He is best able to exercise his power to promote good governance when both the government and opposition are disempowered and can only ignore him at their peril. If the 20th Amendment is not passed now, it may never be. But despite President Sirisena’s clear preference for the 20th Amendment to be passed prior to the dissolution of parliament, there is one factor that might force his hand to dissolve parliament without passing the amendment. This is the question of the mounting challenge to his leadership of the SLFP being posed by former president Rajapaksa. It is this issue that can push the president to make the decision to dissolve parliament sooner rather than later.
At the present time the UNP led government is disempowered because it does not have a parliamentary majority. The government faces two no-confidence motions against the prime minister and finance minister, which if passed would require the dissolution of the government and appointment of a new prime minister. Only the president stands between the no-confidence motions and their passage in parliament. At the same time the SLFP majority in parliament is also disempowered because they do not form the government. As most of them lack a vision of good governance that President Sirisena has, they are looking to him to permit them to utilise their parliamentary majority to get the better of the government.
As politicians who seek power most of the SLFP parliamentarians are concerned primarily about retaining or improving their positions of power and not good governance of which President Sirisena has become the foremost champion from within the political sphere. The SLFP knows that it is the president who stands between them and the no-confidence motions they have tabled in parliament against the prime minister and finance minister. They are aggrieved that he is not taking their side and ousting the UNP government. This is why both former president Rajapaksa and his supporters have been openly defiant of the president’s directive that SLFP members should not take part in the political rallies being organised to ensure the return of the former president into active politics on behalf of the SLFP and in a position of leadership.
However, President Sirisena has reiterated that he will not provide the former president with nominations from the SLFP to contest future elections and more especially that he will not countenance the former president as the SLFP’s prime ministerial candidate. He has also made it clear to his party members that they will have to choose between supporting the SLFP or the former president. At the present time the former president does not have his own political party or a grassroots party machinery to support him outside of the SLFP. An early dissolution of parliament will prevent former president Rajapaksa from obtaining either the time or space to set up a new party machine with the capacity to mobilise voters in sufficient numbers to become a winning force. This may be the choice the president is forced to make even though his heart and the practice of statesmanship lies with effort to ensure the passage of the 20th Amendment.