Sri Lanka’s two main political parties, the SLFP and the UNP, for the first time in history, has united to form a national government (see this newspaper’s yesterday’s lead story).
The first time the formation of a national government was mooted was by then then opposition leader J.R. Jayewardene at the height of the JVP insurrection in April 1971. However, this proposal was rejected by the then Prime Minister and SLFP/UF leader Sirima Bandaranaike.
The next time the proposal to form a national government was made was 17 years later in 1988. That time too the request was made by Jayewardene, then the country’s Executive President. It was a period when the whole island was literally on fire.
The IPKF was in the North and in the East of the country fighting the LTTE then. The JVP had launched its second insurgency in the rest of the country after the signing of the Indo-Lanka Peace Accord a year earlier in 1987. The JVP which was proscribed after the July 1983 riots was opposed to the Accord as it allowed the Indians to meddle in the internal affairs of the country.
The SLFP, though having only eight seats in parliament at that time was the ‘leader of the opposition.’ This was because the main opposition party till 1983, the TULF which represented Sri Lanka’s minority Tamil community in the North and East, had boycotted parliament since 1983 as a protest of having to take an oath, denouncing separatism.
However, with Presidential Elections due in 1988, the then SLFP leader Bandaranaike seemingly sensing victory due to the near anarchical state of the country then, once more rejected Jayewardene’s overtures of forming a national government. The rest is history.
It’s in this backdrop, that 27 years later, what Jayewardene failed to achieve twice before, the incumbent President Maithripala Sirisena has been able to achieve. That is to form a national government, by getting the UNP and the SLFP together.
Before Sunday (22 March), when this coalition or national government was formed, the country in effect had a minority government, led by UNP leader and Primier Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe. In fact, the SLFP has more seats than the UNP in the present parliament.
This seemingly unique arrangement until Sunday was possible due to the President being from the SLFP, but as a gratitude to the UNP, Sri Lanka’s political party with the single largest vote base, which supported him at his successful election campaign, he allowed the UNP to call the shots in government, to which arrangement the SLFP, the largest coalition partner in the UPFA, also lent its support in parliament.
SLFP functions as the main opposition party in parliament currently.
What is significant in this new arrangement of government is that of the 11 new cabinet ministers, five state ministers and 10 deputy ministers sworn in on Sunday, they comprised either SLFPers or renegade UNPers. None of them were from the other coalition partners of the SLFP.
This bipartisan arrangement is expected to give the Sirisena-Wickremesinghe National Democratic Front (NDF) Coalition Government, the required majority, if not the two thirds majority to pass various bills in parliament, the uppermost of which seemingly is the curbing of executive presidential powers, complemented by the proposed 19th amendment to the Constitution.
Among the other issues are electoral reforms, comprising a mix of the present proportional representation (PR) system and the old, first past the post (FPP) system, by replacing the existing PR system, introduced with the promulgation of the present 1978 Constitution.
It’s also a national government which was formed in peace time, in a period where the country has seemingly no threat of southern terrorism (JVP) nor northern terrorism (LTTE). The only internal threat facing the country and the NDF government in the present context is its political stability.
With cabinet portfolios given to SLFPers, seemingly cementing the current bipartisan arrangement of government, the NDF may now be able to box on till next year when the mandate of the present parliament expires.
That may be what Sirisena wants and seemingly his party the SLFP too. But whether that will turn out to be for the good for the UNP at a mandatory general election due as late as next year, is anybody’s guess.
Is Sirisena more cunning than the Old Fox? Has he got Jayewardene’s nephew once more caged in as his predecessors of his own party has been doing for the past 21 years expect two, is left for history to prove?