A National Government – What is in a name ?

24 August 2015 - 123   - 0


The formation of a national Government following victory at the parliamentary election was the main thrust of the United national  Party’s leader Mr Ranil Wickeramasinghe (RW). It became the main plank on every stage he got onto during an impressively gruelling itinerary of electioneering as he criss-crossed the country.

He had learnt quickly that the coalescence of forces and opinions that brought about the ‘regime change’ on January 8th 2015 was one that based it self on the Sri Lankan population’s, at least a majority albeit a small one, desire to end a culture of autocracy and overt impunity mixed with a level of corruption that exceeded most African and Latin American countries in the past at least. RW ensured that this message was maintained in the forefront of the people’s perceptions and the media was helpful, having been subjugated if not muzzled with journalists killed or vaporised over the last ten years or so.

There was no debate about the values of capitalist economics supported by a Westminster type parliamentary system over pseudo socialist economic theories. The interim UNP government, shrewdly having accommodated a large number of UPFA members into its ranks was fully aware that eyebrows were raised when RW was named prime minister of a government, which on paper would not have the numerical clout in parliament. The UPFA tried to labour this point but lost the argument when the newly elected President Maithripala Sirisena (MS) with a deft sleight of hand got the 19th amendment to the constitution passed. An act, that won acclaim nationally and internationally.

A further amendment was not passed or even tabled but was not of significance since it would not have applied to last week’s elections any way. In contrast the, the former President Mahinda Rajapakse (MR) proclaimed that he was the leader of the Sinhala Buddhist polity and the victory that he had delivered single handedly in May 2009 would

be squandered by a group of Royalists and a peasant from Polonnaruwa. He completely disregarded the millions of Sinhala Buddhists who voted for MS in January. This aspect was also underplayed by the media it has to be said. At a local level little credence was given to RW for splitting the LTTE in 2004.

Internationally there is possible evidence that the USA, UK and others provided crucial intelligence, arms etc in the war against the forces of V Pirabakaran (VP). This was in addition to the tactical and logistical information made available to the now Field Marshal Sarath Fonseka by individuals such as Vinayagamoorthy Muralitharan alias Karuna. It is also widely believed that in May 2009, the Indian Navy blockaded Vattuvaikal in Mullaithivu to prevent VP’s escape from the Nandikadal lagoon, where he was allegedly killed while surrendering. The constant

supply of armaments from China and Pakistan on long-term credit also helped. While such facts have been emerging over the last six years MR’s mantra of single handedly winning the war over the ‘most ruthless terrorist organisation in the world’ was wearing thin. This was in addition to his perception that any political dissent amounted to support for the LTTE. This too was borrowed from George.W.Bush who stated during the second gulf war that ‘if you are not for us you are against us’! Here were two MR positions that came out of the USA.

Drumming out this constant line while using sacred Buddhist temples a bases did not resonate well. Being surrounded by a motley crew of serial hunger strikers, double-crossers, well travelled professors of law and ‘has been” leftists without the intellectual standing of their predecessors, who had been reduced merely to the position of fawning

acolytes did MR no favours. This however, led to an aura of invincibility which one suspects made MR believe that on waking up, the nightmare of the January defeat will be over. Psychologists would call this a delusional state. This was compounded by statements that the UPFA and its leadership had after all these years turned over a new leaf. The judiciary will be independent and the country not allowed to be split. By this time where the fault lines were, becoming less clear.

There was more heard about the LTTE in Hambantota than in the Northern province as proven by the voters. The concept of a ‘National’ government was dismissed out of hand by the UPFA and its leader MR at the hustings. This position was completely out of synch with the message that the party’s Chairman and the country’s President was giving the electorate along with the interim prime minister.

The UFGG got its message of ‘look what we have achieved in 130 days; give us 60 months, across more clearly. Even if there were issues with bonds and the Central Bank, these ran out of steam and seemed to be of little concern to the electorates. The MS-RW partnership has forged ahead with the concept of a national government. The small fringe parties are crying foul with some justification since that was neither their election leader’s position or their own during the campaign.

Having said that, it is more likely that their sulk is more related to the realisation that their ambitions of high office along with the perks and trappings that go with it are history, at least for now. For some, a real worry would be that as ordinary citizens they are vulnerable to the long arm of the law. For MS this is a chance to purge if not cleanse the SLFP of individuals who had parachuted in over the years seeking the filthy lucre to provide them the good life. Here begins the deconstruction of the UPFA.

There is a feeling among the born and bred SLFP supporters that their party has been hijacked by pole vaulters and gamblers. These intruders have been appointed at local,

district, provincial and state levels over and above the salt of the earth SLFP member. As with many organisations a period of reflection and setting the reset button is no bad thing. In the future, the redefining of a non aligned foreign policy with a human face underpinned by a domestic policy of equality, divergence and the protection of human rights can only be a good thing. Economic policies to power this may well require a style of mixing the state sector with an accountable private sector. It may be that the SLFP will re-invent itself in the current global setting. The UNP too needs to heed the wake up call. It is not clear what proportion of UNP votes or support was gained by this party alone. The party clearly needs to move away from uncles and nephews and the royalista. Here in lie the dangers of a national government.

All governments are national. If the word ‘national’ is to mean all parties in the house of parliament, it would convey a different meaning. That is not going to be the case in the current set up. What we have now is not new since on several occasions one party or coalition has had such an overwhelming majority that it could ignore all other voices.

This was true of the 2010 government and the 1977 one. Such majorities have not been uncommon in Sri Lanka’s parliamentary history but have only been exposed and fallen foul when they have intimidated and interfered with the independence of the judicial system. The latter together with media freedom and freedom of expression will resist autocracy.

Governments with large parliamentary majorities can act as one party states. The elected house is simply an organisation to rubber stamp the policies of the leadership. It seems attractive at face value, in being able to push through laws and policies without much debate. The great danger is of course the real possibility that any differences of opinion or dissent may be construed as ‘anti national’ and labelled as such.

[caption id="attachment_81823" align="alignright" width="500"] Ranil Wickremesinghe being sworn in as Prime Minister[/caption]

Dictatorial regimes end up being carried away by a false sense of invincibility. In many systems that overtly have one party only, such as the Communist Party of China, the party members will represent a spectrum of ideas and policy. More often than not this leads to intense debate and a particular set of ideas win out.

The downside is that one is never sure of the future of individuals losing the debate. In the Westminster model the governing party and the opposition do come together at moments of crisis such as economic collapse or wars.

There is also the recognition that members of the house are allowed a ‘free vote’ that is, they are not subject to the party whip on some pieces of legislation. This does not detract from the vigorous debate that may have ensued before hand. Such debate is a necessary medium for ensuring that the population at large is well informed about the arguments and issues involved when particular laws and more general policies are being promulgated in their name.

It may be that all voting should be without the constraints of a party whip. The pitfalls in the concept of a ‘national’ government are many. It could be argued that the voters are in effect robbed of their vote. The state could have avoided spending large amounts of the people’s money and settled matters out with the ballot box, much as lawyers do out side of courts.

It could be that the current mood of the Sri Lankan people is better captured by the phrase ‘ Government of National Unity’.

- Ravi Gnanasunderam

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