Dr. Paikiasothy Saravanamuttu
It is a February to remember and for the Government, one it would like to forget. The victorious populist backlash led by former President Mahinda Rajapaksa in a Local Government election has put into serious question the political fortunes of the government, its constituent parties and their leadership to the extent that since the election results were announced on 11 February, the impression, if not the reality, is one of instability and uncertainty. In politics, perceptions matter and the dominant perception is that the Rajapaksas are on their way back to power – There are provincial council elections, a presidential election and a general election all within the space of the next two and half years with the presidential election due in November/December 2019.
Clearly, the national electorate has sent the government a stern rebuke and a sharp wake-up call – things cannot go on as they have, promises made have to be delivered upon, the electorate cannot be taken for granted. The message is not just to the Government, but the main political parties that constitute it, as well. It is pivotally important to see it as such and not to mistake rebuke, however scathing, for definitive repudiation.
This isn’t rocket science. In a functioning democracy any government elected, especially on a platform of reform, has to deliver.
Moreover, it has to carry the people along with it. Communication of vision, of policy and programme, of what is being done, what isn’t and why, is paramount. Ceding the space for public discourse to the opposition to define the issues of the day retards the reform project, even risks its abandonment. The key constituent elements of this Government, if they are to govern for its full term, have to arrive at a policy consensus for the remainder of its term without delay and communicate this to the country and the world at large, cogently and coherently. There cannot be the problems of command, control and communication that have dogged this Government from the outset or the backbiting that has characterized it in the final phase of the election campaign, which still continues. There has to be a sense of urgency about this or else the perception that we do not in effect have a Government and will not until the next national election, will take hold. No one, surely wants that, irrespective of personal or party political fortunes?
As much as the Rajapaksa forces will move to consolidate their substantial support in the country, the UNP as the main party in Government and the largest party in Parliament, has to heed the message of the electorate and rebrand itself fast or else risk further humbling if not humiliating defeat into the future. The Prime Minister has announced that he will continue in office and that the party will now focus on grooming its leadership for the future. Not everyone is convinced that the latter will actually happen – a sense of déjà vu prevails – and not everyone is convinced that he should continue as Prime Minister. Personal preferences and partisan bias notwithstanding, the future leadership of the UNP has to be decided by the UNP and the Prime Minister, by Parliament.
According to media reports, the President is seeking legal advice on how to remove the Prime Minister, given the constraints of the 19th Amendment to the Constitution. There is no parliamentary tradition of a Prime Minister and/or Government resigning on account of a defeat, however stinging, at a Local Government election. It would best serve the country if the matter is resolved without delay where it should, and that is in Parliament. This would settle the damaging speculation of how many MPs have signed affidavits and pledged support for one side or another and clear the way for Government and governing and indeed governance, in response to the message of the country at large and consonant with the promises made in 2015.
It is indeed unfortunate that the President has intervened in the way that he has, with regard to the removal of the Prime Minister.
It reflects a lack of understanding of the 19th Amendment, the drafting of which he was party to, in particular the recalibrating of the powers of the executive and legislature. His entertaining the prospect of a new Prime Minister and apparent shopping around for one, is largely responsible for the prevailing uncertainty about Government. He should let Parliament decide who commands its confidence.
Beyond the current political manoeuvring, is the paramount question of where the country is heading. It is incumbent upon current and would be leaders of government to lay out their vision for the country and the policies, which will realize their respective visions and in more than mere brush strokes. Are constitutional reform and transitional justice to be jettisoned? What happens on the economic front? And ETCA?
The challenges ahead are many and unavoidable; much needs to be done and undone. Government and governance requires both.