By Lucien Rajakarunanayake
Leading politicians of all hues anointed with the auspicious Avurudu oil are moving to the New Year, taking them to new challenges in national and party politics, and facing the realities of a unity government having members seated both in the Government and Opposition.
The prorogation of Parliament, coming after many years when this tradition was ignored or was not required by the realities of day-to-day politics and governance, did bring about some quiet and helped give a bigger focus to Avurudu festivities. The departure of President Maithripala Sirisena to the UK for the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting also brought some calm to what could have been a period of heated political debate in the context of the jolting developments in post-No Confidence politics.
As the crackers, rabana rhythms and pillow fights of Avurudu celebrations move away, we move to the politics of a new reality where the Unity Government has to take urgent measures to face up to division in its ranks, particularly the situation within the SLFP, the lesser partner of government, which party is led by the Head of Government, President Sirisena. It was certainly a time of mockery of the traditions of parliamentary propriety when the 16 members, including Cabinet members, who voted for the NCM against the Prime Minister did not resign from the Cabinet, but wanted the approval of the President and their party leader to do so. In keeping with the declared commitment to parliamentary democracy, the choice was one of even delayed decency, and the group had to resign.
They will now sit in the Opposition benches in Parliament, but have stated they will not be part of the Joint Opposition (JO), and will continue to support the President from their new seats in the House.
It is certainly an interesting development that will see even more action by the JO to embrace them into its ranks, under the leadership of former President and SLFP leader, Mahinda Rajapaksa. It also paves the way for new differences within the SLFP to emerge as the President moves to carry out what is described as a ‘scientific’ re-shuffle of the Cabinet and bring in new life and purpose to the Unity Government; shaken up so badly after the defeat of the UNP and SLFP in the February 10 local government polls, and the later NCM campaign against the Prime Minister.
Whatever the science of the coming re-shuffle, the President will certainly have to give serious thought to continued unity in government, prevent encroaching by the JO and Mahinda Rajapaksa ranks into what is left of the SLFP. The country also needs a strong message of allegiance to the policies of the January 2015 Presidential Poll campaign, which saw his election as President, defeating Mahinda Rajapaksa who was seeking to be in the executive presidency for many decades more.
Size of Democracy
There are several authoritative voices on the Constitution and the 19th Amendment to it, which President Sirisena did push through Parliament, who dismiss views of legal and constitutional analysts that the National Government is no more after the breakup of the SLFP, and 16 government members sitting in Opposition ranks. The formal position is that as the UPFA, of which too President Sirisena is the head, is still in the ‘national government’ the unity government remains. The position is that the party with a higher number of seats (in this instance the UNP) can have an agreement with any small party to form a national government.
This will certainly suit the politics of advantage, but is it the substance of Democracy, and public expectation? There is little doubt that one of the major criticisms of this government has been the size of its Cabinet. From a Constitutional limit of 30, it went far beyond 40 because of a national government of unity.
There are hopes and expectations that the departure of 16 SLFP members, including Cabinet members, would lead to a smaller Cabinet in the ‘scientific structure’ of a future Cabinet. But the politics of advantage, which has been the consistency of unity government, thinks larger is better, with science having little say. This is certainly a major issue that President Sirisena will have to look into as he begins whatever process of reconstruction of government, because a Cabinet as large as the former, although helping to satisfy the expectations of politicians, will certainly lead to further opposition and criticism among the public.
This is an area that Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe too should pay keen attention to, because winning back the public support the UNP has clearly lost, as seen in the local government polls, is of importance to the UNP and his leadership. Presenting a smaller Cabinet, could require some UNP members moving to the back benches, but that would give the party much more public acceptance, and help in the party reorganisation reportedly underway. If both parties, in a spirit of revived unity, could limit the Cabinet to 30, despite the possibility of more in ‘unity’. It would be a major push for greater popularity.
While on the UNP reforms, the appointment of a Politbureau (PB) in the party, seems to give a bigger voice and strength the younger members demanding a role in the wider leadership of the party.
The absence of the most senior members of the party in the PB certainly shows the acceptance of the need for structural and organisational changes, which could give the party a wider reach to the public in elections ahead. What will be most significant in these reforms is the selection of a new General Secretary. The success of Navin Dissanayake in the Nuwara Eliya District in the recent local government polls, presents him as a good choice for future leadership. But, the party certainly has to go through a much larger shake up, with a revivalist approach to policy and presentation, if it is to gather all its forces to meet the challenge of the SLPP – amidst a hugely declining SLFP – in the months ahead.
The JVP’s move to present a 20th Amendment to the Constitution has all signs of being a major issue of politics in the coming months. In fact it seeks to give new meaning to the pledge given by the campaign for the Common Candidate Maithripala Sirisena, in January 2015. The political and opportunist realities that have pushed the plans for constitutional reform very far back, and especially the abolition of the Executive Presidency, makes this of special significance in the UNP – SLFP rivalries, too.
It is noteworthy that SLFP members in the unity government have been against the abolition of the Executive Presidency, although President Sirisena stood for it in his election, and the SLFP has called for it from the time it was introduced in 1978.
The manoeuvring of politics shows the SLPP, and Mahinda Rajapaksa himself, supporting the JVP move, but with the catch of calling for the dissolution of the current parliament, too. On the other side is the announcement by the SLFP’s General Secretary, Duminda Dissanayake, addressing a press conference at his ministry that Maithripala Sirisena would be the SLFP’s candidate for the presidency at the next presidential election. It is hardly likely this would have been said without the knowledge of President Sirisena.
This raises several political questions of importance. If President Sirisena is to be the SLFP’s candidate for the next executive presidency would he contest Gotabhaya Rajapaksa? Another question, if the presidential poll precedes the General Election, as expected today, would a future Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa wish to be serving under President Sirisena?
More importantly, is the SLPP and Mahinda Rajapaksa’s call for dissolution of parliament to be added to the abolition of the Executive Presidency, a plan to kill two big birds with one stone?
This debate will certainly spread among the public that has been calling for the abolition of the Executive Presidency for nearly 40 years. The sides for and against it have switched recently. The UNP is clearly supportive of the ban so far, but what will be its position if the contest ahead is only for the office of Prime Minister? Would the SLPP prefer to see a UNP President and Mahinda Rajapaksa as Prime Minister? The twists and turns are many and knotty.
The situation is tangled as the government does not have votes for a two-thirds majority in parliament anymore. Such a vote will need the full backing of the UNP and SLPP, with the JVP, TNA and some LFP and other minority members. The issue then is putting it to a referendum if adopted in parliament.
This is certainly a big call for action by the JVP and civil society organisations that were together in January 2015, when the people voted for this change, but was pushed by the forces ranged against the will of the people, especially in government.