The dust is slowly settling on the general elections but the future trajectory of both the government and opposition remains uncertain, two weeks later. It is a reflection of the polarity of politics in Sri Lanka and the difficulty in forging a consensus among parties which are traditional rivals.
Several stalwarts who supported the President instead of Rajapaksa lost their seats. To repay them for their loyalty – and also to strengthen his hold on the SLFP – the President appointed these defeated candidates through the National List, a move that was widely condemned
During the presidential election, the United National Party (UNP) which endorsed President Maithripala Sirisena’s candidacy was floating the concept of a national government. Now, with only 105 seats in the new Parliament, it is forced to form a coalition to govern.
It had several options. It could have come to an understanding with the Tamil National Alliance which had hinted that it was willing to work with the UNP. However, with the UNP’s standing with the Sinhala Buddhist segment of the population still suspect, the party was not too keen.
The other strategy it could have employed was what was used by former President Mahinda Rajapaksa: lure a few parliamentarians from the Opposition, with the promise of Cabinet portfolios. Since it has 105 seats, it needed only another eight seats to gain a majority in Parliament.
Eschewing both these options, it has opted to go into partnership with the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP), its arch rival. This was announced by Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe soon after election results were declared and the UNP emerged as the party with the most number of seats.
This is a strategy that is more than honoring a pre-presidential poll election promise. It allows the UNP to secure a two thirds majority in Parliament which it could use to effect changes to the Constitution – a task that was only half done when it was a minority government earlier this year.
It also achieves another UNP objective: it will pave the way for the dismantling of the United Peoples’ Freedom Alliance (UPFA) of which the SLFP is a major partner. The UPFA is already in crisis with its smaller constituents strongly opposing a national government.
These parties led by Wimal Weerawansa, Vasudeva Nanayakkara, Dinesh Gunewardena and Udaya Gammanpila were instrumental in luring Rajapaksa to contest the general election. The results of the poll suggest that they rose on the back of SLFP votes to retain their seats in Parliament.
This was despite opposition from President Sirisena who, though being leader of the UPFA and the SLFP found that his parliamentary group was defying him and joining the Rajapaksa bandwagon in a bid to secure their seats, cashing in on Rajapaksa’s popularity.
Several stalwarts who supported the President instead of Rajapaksa lost their seats. To repay them for their loyalty – and also to strengthen his hold on the SLFP – the President appointed these defeated candidates through the National List, a move that was widely condemned.
President Sirisena can now be seen engaging in moves to consolidate his position in his party. He has appointed two general secretaries of his choice to the SLFP and the UPFA, sacked Rajapaksa loyalists from the central and executive committees and replaced them with his nominees.
The national government concept, however, remains a challenge. During initial discussions between the UNP and the SLFP, there was much disagreement, mostly over the distribution of Cabinet portfolios. As it had 95 seats, the SLFP felt it too should be allocated ‘important’ ministries.
The talks almost failed and UNP General Secretary Kabir Hashim commented that if required the UNP was in a position to form a government on its own. However, this was followed by talks between the President, Prime Minister and former President Chandrika Kumaratunga and saner counsel prevailed.
The latest reports suggest that the cabinet would consist of 30 UNP ministers and 15 from the SLFP with the latter being allocated some ‘important’ subjects. It appears to be a compromise that appeases the SLFP to some extent. The hope is that this arrangement will survive at least for the next two years.
The smaller parties in the UPFA remain opposed to this. Some of them are moving courts to quash the party’s National List which was commandeered by the President. They insist that they will function as the main opposition. Some SLFPers are also defiant, opposing the UNP-SLFP power sharing pact.
Rajapaksa has not declared his hand yet. He has refused an offer to become Leader of the Opposition but has not stated his stance on the national government. Whether he will be content to sit in the Opposition back benches or continue to be the star attraction in the Opposition remains to be seen.
The swearing in of the Cabinet has been postponed several times. It awaits the first sitting of Parliament which needs to approve the increased numbers in the Cabinet under the 19th Amendment. There will be further haggling about who gets which ministry. This drama is by no means over.