Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe must surely be thinking to himself why on earth he suggested a National Government given the way we understand he has had to fight tooth and nail to have his party-men slotted into key Cabinet posts. The undercurrents of Cabinet-forming under the MoU with the SLFP seemed daunting. He could have [...]


Cohabitation with bad-fellows


Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe must surely be thinking to himself why on earth he suggested a National Government given the way we understand he has had to fight tooth and nail to have his party-men slotted into key Cabinet posts. The undercurrents of Cabinet-forming under the MoU with the SLFP seemed daunting. He could have probably run the Government with the seats his party received at the August 17 general elections, but the noble yet challenging goal of aiming for the magic 150 seats to garner a two-thirds majority of the 225 seat Parliament to change the Constitution and run an administration of national unity has its painful headaches.

In the process, he is having to compromise on portfolios for his team that he led to victory and concede many of them, ironic as it is, to even those who were defeated at the polls and whose track records as ministers in the previous, defeated administration left much to be desired. The announcement of the Cabinet has now been thrice delayed.

There is already a bad taste left with the President’s decision to bring back defeated candidates — straight into the Cabinet through the back door. True, he is trying to consolidate his position within his own SLFP, but what difference is it then from the actions of his predecessor who made the famous remark that his Government was like a ‘salon door’ — open for anyone to come or go, knowing very well that when in office that door is one-way traffic. The National List was meant for intellectuals and professionals who cannot contest elections — not for dyed-in-the- wool politicians who can’t win seats, the only caveat being that there can also be, like Sunil Handunetti of the JVP those who lost, due to political circumstances, but should be in the Legislature.

From the political grapevine comes the news that the defeated candidates are working on the principle of aiming for the moon if only to reach the church steeple. They are demanding “top” portfolios to settle for a little less and some of the key ones, much to the chagrin of the young UNPers, are going to the SLFP.

The PM has to yield if he wants his National Government up and running. Cynics say it is a case of shuffling the same pack of jokers, but the President has short-changed the will of the people and his party secretary is hinting that even they can form the new Government – with the backing of an Executive President. Are not the sovereign voters entitled to ask if the August 17 election mandate is being tinkered with and if the only result has been the elimination of Mahinda Rajapaksa from office?

That in itself is a major triumph for those who wanted to see the back of Mr. Rajapaksa, but what of others in that corrupt regime of his? He may have allowed his Ministers to be corrupt, but then these Ministers were corrupt – and they are back in office in all likelihood to the same Ministries they presided over. And this will be our National Government!

Mr. Rajapaksa must have believed that by safeguarding his corrupt Ministers he had earned their loyalty. He can now see for himself where loyalty lies in politics with his one-time allies dumping him in the dustbin of history and gravitating to the new President and the honey pot of a new National Government.

If what the country witnessed in the experimental period of a National Government from January-July 2015 is anything to go by, political morality does not always co-relate to political expediency. It was not the best example of good governance and it is also not the best foot forward for the fledgling post-August 17 Government to be seen haggling over posts with one signatory of the MoU suggesting that they can form the Government irrespective of the popular vote going against them. The two parties might do well to add a clause to the MoU that it should be honoured not only to the letter but in the spirit.

Collective Cabinet responsibility was thrown to the winds during the experimental stage from January-July and in all probability, going by the noises emanating from the SLFP quarters, that the proposed National Government is going to speak with ‘one voice’ is an unlikely prospect.

The unsavoury prospect is that the new Ministers parachuted into the Cabinet will go their merry way as before during the Rajapaksa regime. Unless the situation settles down after the appointments are made, a Government in which the PM does not have complete control is going to be the likely scenario. But was that what the majority of voters – and those in the North who seem to be backing the PM’s coalition, trekked to the polling booths for?

The President on the other hand, betrayed his inner feelings when he wrote to Mr. Rajapaksa on the eve of the parliamentary elections indicating his willingness to consider forming a UPFA Government should that coalition be within striking distance of obtaining a majority of seats. That was his clearly preferred option, which the UNF coalition did not take kindly to.
The ongoing shenanigans in the corridors of power in Cabinet-forming is indicative that what is in the making is not so much a National Government or even what the President wishes to call it – a Government of National Unity, but plain and simple, a Cohabitation Government. In political parlance, Cohabitation Governments also get classified as Divided Governments.

The oscillation of power between the President heading the Executive, and what was hoped to be a Prime Minister heading the Legislature is going to be something that will continue and be closely watched. The President indicated that he was going to be neutral at the elections, but he was not. In the power-play between him and the PM he has the upper hand in that he heads the Government, and the Cabinet. His party-men and women are both in Government – and the Opposition to boot (though those in the Opposition are not well disposed towards him), so he can play hot and cold even if the Opposition is castrated for now. Few want to sit it out in Opposition when they can now sit in Government enjoying its perks and privileges.

Fortunately, for now, the President and PM are not particularly protagonists but Cohabitation Governments are characterised by constant friction between the two offices when they are from different parties. Power tugs are bound to happen as time goes by, now that the common aim of defeating Mahinda Rajapaksa has been achieved.

What now of the recent excitement and mass mobilisation to abolish the Executive Presidency? Is that cry now mute? Is the country resigned to the fact – and the fate, that the campaign for the abolition of the Executive Presidency has lost the wind below its wings. With the 19th Amendment, rather than have its wings clipped, and lulled into the belief that the incumbent has said he will only be a one-term President, has that campaign now gone into limbo? We are into the 37th year of the Executive Presidency. It is here to stay, or so it seems.

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