By Jehan Perera –
The coalition of political parties and civil society groups that came together to ensure victory for President Maithripala Sirisena at the presidential elections of January 2015 under the theme of good governance is no more. The distancing started soon after the formation of the new UNP-led coalition government and the implementation of the 100 day programme. Sharp disagreements began to emerge within the political parties in the government on issues such as the extent of power to be taken away from the president and given to the prime minister in terms of the 19th Amendment. The practice of good governance itself came under scrutiny due to the problem of the bond issue by the Central Bank that has continued to fester with damning disclosures coming to the fore. The inability to pass the 20th Amendment despite the commitment of the president showed the waning of his influence in parliament.
However, the desire of people of all walks of life to have a government that acts according to principles of good governance continues to find its expression in civil society. The better educated sections of the voting population especially in the urban areas, and the ethnic minorities who were at the receiving end of lawless rule continue to value good governance. The March 12 Movement, which intends to hold political parties to their promise to only nominate candidates who abide by the values of good governance, and who are not corrupt, violent or contravene basic standards of political conduct is an expression of this. During the past fortnight they have been going around the country collecting signatures to meet their target of one million. This is a declaration that has also been signed by the leaders of all major political parties, including the president, prime minister and leader of the opposition.
In the context of the exposures of corruption and promises made of good governance during the presidential election campaign, and the continuing civil society desire for good governance, the decision of President Sirisena to agree to nominate the former president has come as a major surprise. During the presidential election that took place in January, the parties that supported President Sirisena, and the president himself, made it clear that the practices of former president, Mahinda Rajapaksa, were the very epitome of what had to change. The way in which the former president had concentrated power in himself and his family, and the abuse of power for personal and monetary gain, was highlighted in the election campaign. But today, in a turn of events that is shocking to many who sought a new Sri Lanka, the former president is back in the SLFP and will presumably be campaigning on the same platform as the president.
Political parties are machines meant to capture and retain political power. The problem for President Sirisena has been his dual role as president of the country committed to good governance, and his role as president of the SLFP committed to giving his party members the best chance of electoral victory. Unless there is a higher morality at play in society that affirms, as the March 12 Movement is saying, that some things cannot be done, such as nominating those who are corrupt and violent to hold office, political parties will nominate them to win elections. In the absence of this higher morality, and as the leader of the SLFP, President Sirisena was bound to give deference to the majority opinion within his party. Their argument was simple and logical. The party would do best if President Sirisena and former president Rajapaksa were on the same side and did not divide their forces. As a personality who is non-authoritarian and in the absence of any institutionalization of the values of the March 12 Movement, President Sirisena seems to have felt that he had no option but to accept the wishes of the majority.
It is a time honoured observation that politics is the art of the possible. The compulsion of securing victory or the best possible result for his political party at the general election seems to have forced President Sirisena to permit the former president to contest from within the party, even though the former president’s practice of governance when he was in power was in direct opposition to the fundamental precepts of good governance. However, it is also worthy of note that no sooner had he agreed to the nomination of the former president, President Sirisena promised that would not abandon good governance or permit those who are corrupt to ruin the country again. He recalled that his presidential election victory “brought about a change which the country needed. The expectations of the people who brought about the silent revolution will not be shattered.”
In bowing to the wishes of the SLFP to bring former president Rajapaksa into the electoral contest, President Sirisena has been democratic to his party members. He has heeded the voice of the majority in the party who wish to win at the forthcoming general elections and believe that the former president’s presence at the campaign will contribute to their victory. However, the active presence of the former president during the election campaign, within the party and in parliament in the future, does not necessarily mean that President Sirisena will abandon his commitment to good governance. It is still possible that having led his party to the best possible electoral outcome, the president will be able to obtain the cooperation and loyalty of his party members after the elections to institutionalize good governance in the country.
Former president Rajapaksa has shown himself to be a resilient politician. When he lost the presidential election with two years left of his second term, after a bitterly contested election, it seemed unlikely that he could have staged the comeback that he has. But though he has been brought back into the SLFP as a candidate for election it does not necessarily mean that he will command the same degree of popular support he once enjoyed. At the presidential election in January the former president had the benefit of unlimited state resources, including government money and media, which were used in a way that contravened election law and for which crimes some of the former government members are facing prosecution. He got 5.8 million votes, but still lost. This time around neither the former president nor the SLFP will have such advantages. They no longer hold governmental power during the election. In addition, during the past six months there has been a stream of revelations of misuse of power and corrupt practices.
The likely scenario at the forthcoming general elections is that no single party, or alliance of parties, will get an absolute majority in parliament. While the former president’s entry into the nomination list of the SLFP will prevent the breakup of the party and its campaign, it will also alienate a significant sector in society who are looking for good governance and who will now need to look elsewhere for their political representation. The UNP, which has been out of power for most of the past two decades, and which showed the possibility of a change in political culture and governance over the past six months, is most likely to be the beneficiary. In particular, the lifting of the fear psychosis that held society in mental chains and the steps towards the reintegration of the ethnic and religious minorities into the mainstream of society came almost instantaneously due to the shift in the policy and outlook of President Maithripala Sirisena and the UNP government.
In the eventuality that no one party secures a majority in parliament the role of the small parties and ethnic minority parties will increase. This will mean the formation of a government in which power is checked and balanced. In these circumstances the role of President Sirisena who, despite the passage of the 19th Amendment, continues to be vested with significant executive powers, will be crucial. The campaign of the March 12 Movement and other civic campaigns need to be strengthened so that the President is constantly reminded of, and supported in, his commitment to good governance even in the new circumstances.