With the general elections behind them President Maithripala Sirisena and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe are driving the agenda for a ‘national’ government. A new Cabinet was sworn in this week, with portfolios being distributed among the two major parties.
Wickremesinghe and his United National Party (UNP) with 106 seats in Parliament could have enlisted the support of with the Tamil National Alliance (TNA) or invited a few parliamentarians from the opposition Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) to form a government.
President Sirisena is still struggling to establish control over the SLFP. Its members ran amok during the general election, defying him and siding with former President Mahinda Rajapaksa. The tussle is not over as events related to the position of Leader of the Opposition showed this week
Instead, he has opted to form a ‘national’ government. The move is not popular even within his party. After nearly two decades in the Opposition, the UNP is now in power but finds that it has to accommodate its rivals who lost the elections in the Cabinet!
The public are also not very happy to see ministers who they voted out of office, some of whom stood with the former regime during the general election campaign even opposing President Sirisena creeping in to the government again, simply because of their seniority in the SLFP.
There is even more cause for concern: one of the main campaign issues that led to the ouster of the United Peoples’ Freedom Alliance (UPFA) government was corruption. The interim UNP-led government was hamstrung in its efforts to deal with it, because of a lack of a parliamentary majority.
Now, even though it is armed with a working majority in Parliament, the UNP-led government finds some of those accused of corruption in their Cabinet! In such circumstances, can there be public confidence that the war against corruption will be fought with commitment and transparency?
All this begs the question, why? What prompted the President and the Prime Minister to embark on a ‘national’ government? The stated ideal is to put an end to ‘hate’ politics between the two major parties that have governed the country. But there is more to it than meets the eye.
President Sirisena is still struggling to establish control over the SLFP. Its members ran amok during the general election, defying him and siding with former President Mahinda Rajapaksa. The tussle is not over as events related to the position of Leader of the Opposition showed this week.
Having conceded the election to the UNP but also having a significant number of parliamentarians returned to the legislature, the Rajapaksa faction nominated Kumar Welgama for the Leader of the Opposition post. Speaker Karu Jayasuriya ruled otherwise, choosing R. Sampanthan instead.
It is easier for the President to rein in the SLFP if they were in government and enjoying the privileges of Cabinet office, when they would be beholden to him. If they remained in the Opposition, they would continue to defy him as they did in the period between January and August.
President Sirisena, addressing the SLFP’s anniversary celebrations on Wednesday stated that he has embarked on a slow but steady journey. There is speculation that the President’s ultimate ambition is to lead a united SLFP at the next general elections in five years and perhaps run for Prime Minister.
For Prime Minister Wickremesinghe, the main advantage of a national government is that his party would be able to muster a two-thirds majority that is required to enact constitutional reforms. A change in the electoral system and further dilution of presidential powers is on the cards.
Wickremesinghe has been Prime Minister thrice before but none of his terms of office have lasted more than a couple of years. Wanting to see his five year term through, he must also be wary of former President Rajapaksa who is in Parliament where the UPFA is only 18 seats short of a majority.
Rajapaksa is a past master at engineering cross-overs and given half a chance he will pounce, to try and secure a majority and realize his cherished ambition of becoming Prime Minister. Wickremesinghe is seeking an ‘insurance’ against this by having SLFPers in his Cabinet of Ministers.
The ‘mega cabinet’ which took oaths on Friday may superficially present a picture of unity. They may even agree on various policy issues, as they are directed to by President Sirisena and Prime Minister Wickremesinghe. The reality is however that the SLFP and the UNP will pursue different agendas.
If the new cabinet is able to usher in reforms without the hiccups that were witnessed between January and August, that would be a major victory. Their outcomes would depend mostly on the leadership provided by the President and the Prime Minister.
Yet, as far as political marriages go, this is only a marriage of convenience, not a marriage borne out of necessity. It is not so much a question as to whether this will end in a divorce because that is an eventuality waiting to happen; it is only a question of how soon that will occur.