On November 4, 2003, then President of Sri Lanka, Chandrika Kumaratunga took over three key ministries from the ruling United National Party. The Defence, Interior and Media portfolios were handed over to MPs belonging to her party. The move effectively led to a governance crisis that in turn precipitated dissolution of Parliament a couple of months later.
What is important here as that when Chandrika seized these ministries she had lost governing legitimacy because her party had been ousted at the 2001 Parliamentary election. The LTTE was controlling vast swathes of the North and East. There was no security to talk of. The economy was in a mess with negative growth recorded at the time of elections. Nine years after being first elected (with a record majority), her popularity was at its lowest, few would disagree.
And yet, she did it. The people didn’t mind as evidenced by the result in the April 2004 Parliamentary election when the UNP was routed. You can blame that on the UNP’s track record with respect to how Ranil Wickremesinghe chose to deal (or not deal, rather) with the LTTE. The popularity of the move notwithstanding, Kumaratunga’s ability to do it and get away with it draws in part from the powers vested in the office of the President. There’s a lesson here.
Maithripala Sirisena, after the 19th Amendment, is not as powerful as Chandrika was when she was President. He is far more popular than she was in November 2003, however. Even after the 19th Amendment, he is still the most powerful individual in the country. He can easily alter the political course, amend the political equation, trip those who think they are riding high, pull up those who seem to have fallen and do a lot more besides.
Right now the United National Party is keen on elections to the point that they wouldn’t even mind sacrificing electoral reforms. Right now, those aligned with former president Mahinda Rajapaksa are also calling for a quick election. Their logic stems from the fact that elections under proportional representation would deliver something more than would a first past the post affair. The key figures of the ‘Mahinda Camp’ would probably return to Parliament. Whether they would do better than an SLFP-led coalition one cannot tell, but the split would in all likelihood see the UNP securing the most seats.
If Maithripala Sirisena was ever serious about electoral reform (he did deliver on pruning the powers of the executive president, we must remember), then he has to understand that the 20th Amendment (electoral reform) has to be passed by this parliament. Leaving it for a future parliament amounts to bidding farewell to electoral reform in the foreseeable future. If he wants the 20th Amendment passed, then he has to move as Chandrika did. No, he doesn’t have to pickpocket ministries from Ranil. Maithripala has a mandate that is fresh. He has given Ranil a free hand and Ranil has abused it, but that’s more blemish on Ranil than on Maithripala.
He needs the UNP to get the 20th passed. He can make the UNP support the 20th by whispering ‘Remember what Chandrika did on November 4, 2003?’ If he dumps the UNP and appoints a new cabinet, the UNP stands to lose a lot in a subsequent election, provided that Sirisena takes a firmer grip on things in his own party. The no-confidence motion against the Prime Minister that the Mahinda Camp has submitted to the Parliament Secretary will be a thorn but it is easily removed. The ‘Chandrika-Style’ is as easily applicable to the UPFA MPs as it is to the UNP.
Maithripala Sirisena is the leader of the SLFP. He is the Executive President. There’s a lot he can do. He can do nothing too. His choice. He will be judged either way.