Sampanthan as Leader of the Opposition: Politics runs full circle, but on a different centre
by Rajan Philips
The new parliament and the new government are sending mixed signals. Some are good, others are disconcerting. But overall Sri Lankans should feel reasonably satisfied for things could have been far worse. For sober perspective, reflect for a moment on the colossal human tragedy of refugees fleeing from the Middle East and Africa looking for safe haven in an officially uninviting Europe. For comparative context, consider the good fortune of Sri Lanka’s location in the world that is far enough from the burning Middle East and the growingly tense Far East where China staged a massive show of force this week primarily to deflect attention from domestic difficulties but raising concerns among its anxious neighbours. But Lanka’s fortuitous location and good fortune should not be a reason to excuse our political leaders for not doing what they are supposed to be doing. They put the country through two elections this year and the people mandated a new President and a new Parliament to deliver on good governance, or yahapalanaya, the new rubric for everything that is politically desirable. But not everything that is being done by the new government and the new parliament is desirable.
Parliament had its inaugural sitting last Tuesday and elected Karu Jayasuriya, an old school gentleman politician with multiple political connections, as the new Speaker. President Sirisena delivered the Policy Statement of the “Government of Consensus”, eclectically drawing, as he said, from the January Presidential Manifesto, as well as the August Manifestos of all the political alliances in parliament – the UNF, the UPFA, the TNA, and the JVP (the only ‘non-alliance’). Mahinda Rajapaksa attended parliament as an ordinary MP minus the Excellency honorific. He certainly is a man for the occasion and a man for all seasons. More clownishly than inauspiciously out of place was Udaya Gamanpilla, but he was quickly put in his place by the Prime Minister’s point of order. When Parliament met again on Thursday, after taking a break to celebrate the SLFP’s 64th birth anniversary, Speaker Jayasuriya announced his recognition of the Member from Trincomalee and TNA Leader, R. Sampanthan, as the new Leader of the Opposition. Flashback comparisons to the 1977 parliament and the emergence of the late Amirthalingam, the then Member for Kankesanthurai and the TULF Leader, are inevitable. Politics would seem to be running a full circle, except it is now turning on a wholly different centre.
Leader of the Opposition, then and now
The 1977 parliament was the last Sri Lankan parliament to be elected under a parliamentary system of government. The UNP won a landslide victory, the TULF came a distant second, the SLFP was reduced to third place, and the Left was decimated. The UNP Leader JR Jayewardene became Prime Minister, and TULF Leader A. Amirthalingam became Leader of the Opposition. This formal dichotomy in parliament was not representative of the distribution of votes in the elections. The SLFP had polled a much larger number of votes than the TULF but won fewer seats under the first-past-the-post system. The Left got zero seats in disproportion to the votes it polled. There were other distortions. The TULF was returned on a mandate to establish a separate state. At the same time its leadership had a secret understanding with the UNP to work towards a viable alternative to separation. The new constitution that the UNP was mandated to deliver was expected to provide the framework for a viable alternative. It fell short by a considerable distance, and the gap would be filled ten years later, belatedly and controversially, by the 13th Amendment to the 1978 Constitution. In between, the TULF was outlawed by the government through 6th Amendment in parliament, and was violently displaced by the LTTE on the ground. The LTTE supremacy was ended in 2009, but postwar reconciliation is still unfinished business in abstract terms and a harrowing concrete experience for the victims of war.
Although it fell short on the Tamil question, the 1978 Constitution succeeded in turning the entire Sri Lankan political system on its head by replacing the parliamentary form of government by a hybrid presidential-parliamentary system. The worst vices of the 1978 Constitution were crystalized during the last five years after the war under President Rajapaksa. Just as Rajapaksa ended the LTTE supremacy in 2009, the Sri Lankan voters have ended Rajapaksa’s quest for interminable rule in 2015. There is a UNP Prime Minister now, just as there was one in 1977. And there is a Tamil Leader of the Opposition now, just as there was one in 1977. But there is nothing more by way of comparison between 1977 and 2015. We are in a different world in more ways than one.
The presidential system of government and the proportional representation system of election have fundamentally changed the composition and the working of parliament from what they were before 1978. Political parties have given way to political alliances. The President’s power to appoint any member of parliament as a cabinet or non-cabinet minister and any number of them at any given time has erased the earlier distinctions between the government and opposition groups in parliament. President Rajapaksa exploited this power to the fullest. The Leader of the Opposition in parliament is no longer the Prime Minister in waiting. In any event, the position of the Leader Opposition is not recognized by the Constitution, but is based on British parliamentary conventions that allow the Speaker to recognize the leader of the largest opposition or non-government party as the official Leader of the Opposition. With the UNP and the SLFP entering into an agreement to form a ‘consensus government’, the TNA has become the largest non-government party in parliament.
It is true the situation is not as clear cut as it was in 1977. Technically, it is because of the subsuming of political parties by registered alliances for electoral purposes. Politically, the SLFP that was a hugely defeated Party in 1977 is a much divided Party in 2015. The official Leader of the SLFP is also the country’s elected executive President. Technically and politically the non-SLFPers in the UPFA are neither here nor there. Mahinda Rajapkasa wants to be part of both – to be part of the UPFA for political mobilization, and to be part of the Sirisena-SLFP as insurance against potential legal problems. Last Wednesday, the SLFP went on pilgrimage to Polonnaruwa to celebrate its 64th anniversary. The destination was symbolic and significant. It was the site of ancient Sinhalese kingdoms that intellectually fascinated the SLFP founder SWRD Bandaranaike, trained at Oxford in Western Classics. It is also the home of the present SLFP Leader, President Maithripala Sirisena. SLFP traditionalists are sighing in relief that the Party has been rescued from the clutches of Mahinda Rajapaksa and his family. Curiously, or not so curiously, the Rajapaksa supporters in the SLFP and the rest of the UPFA are not fighting back within the SLFP or the UPFA. Instead, they are caviling at the recognition of Mr. Sampanthan as the Leader of the Opposition.
What should be of greater consequence is the world of difference between Sampanthan as Leader of the Opposition in 2015 and Amirthalingam as Leader of the Opposition in 1977.The TNA’s mandate and priorities are a world apart from the TULF’s mandate and priorities 38 years ago. More blood than water has flowed through much of the intervening years and there is palpable consensus in the land never to return to that past again. The Prime Minister’s put-down of Gamanpilla’s uncharitable remarks in parliament was a demonstration of that consensus. Unlike the secret bilateral understanding between JR Jayewardene and the TULF leadership in 1977, there is an open and transparent recognition of what needs to be done on the part President Sirisena, Prime Minister Wickremasinghe, the TNA and former President Chandrika Kumaratunga. The question might be asked – what does being the Leader of the Opposition have to do with political reconciliation? I asked someone that question and got the answer that in making an issue of it, the TNA was being assertively inclusive instead of being passively exclusive. The TULF, on the other hand, was assertively exclusive and passively inclusive in 1977.
The Speaker’s recognition of Mr. Sampanthan as the Leader of the Opposition has been widely welcomed, but there have also been the usual detractors. Much of the detraction arises from what appears to be a misunderstanding of the people’s mandate in a newly elected parliament. In the traditional parliamentary system, the system of government is the political party or alliance. The system of government will collapse if every Member of Parliament or Political Party insist that presidential, parliamentary, or their hybrid version as in Sri Lanka, does not work on the basis of multiple mandates.
Surprisingly less ‘controversial’ but more disconcerting has been the size of the new cabinet that kept growing for twenty days and needed a special parliamentary resolution to get around the limit on cabinet size included in the 19th Amendment that was enacted not too long ago. Those who have got together to erase the legacies of the Rajapaksa government are not quite ready to give up on his legacy of forming jumbo cabinets. It’s like the old prayer: “Give me chastity, Oh Lord, but not yet”! Cabinet making in Sri Lanka is no longer about finding suitable people for rationally determined portfolios, but about slicing and dicing government functions to match the increasing number of MPs who covet cabinet or non-cabinet ministerial positions.
The 1978 Constitution allowed the President to unilaterally appoint as cabinet or non-cabinet minister any member of parliament, from whichever party, government or opposition. It is possible to have a cabinet of more than half the number of parliamentarians and let the cabinet make laws as it goes. But there is also audible moan among the more traditional of government watchers at the unsettling delay over cabinet making in the new government. Twenty days after an election is a long period to go without a new cabinet in place. Like the baby past the delivery date, the still unborn is rapidly growing. Parliament had to resolve to accommodate the numbers already accommodated in the cabinet with a few more appointments yet to be made.
In the old days, parliament in SL was a repository of knowledge. People looked up to it with respect. The Left conducted an Open University. The UNP had men of practical accomplishments. The SLFP brought the pulse of the common man to nation’s seat of power. Cabinet making was the prime minister’s job. It became the president’s job under JRJ. But in the present setup, a president and a prime minister leading rival parties have their party interests to protect. On top of that, the president is obligated to the UNP and its leader for the role they played in his election last January. The situation is naturally complicated but what emerges will hopefully work for the country’s best advantage.