Political events that followed the local government election of February 10 as well as last week’s mini cabinet reshuffle have re-energized Sri Lanka’s public discussions on changing the dynamics of current politics. Regular media reporting of actual events as well as the never ending speculation about possible twists and turns in politics, no doubt sharpened the intensity of public debate.
Yet, there have also been many instances where the line of demarcation between fact and fiction, and authenticity and fakeness, of the news had got blurred. The relentless enthusiasm of some of the media to see an instant political change with drama and spectacle, soon after the election results came to be known, also created an unprecedented degree of confusion all around. It was remarkable that the enthusiasm for a sudden change at the highest level of the government was shared by sections of the citizenry as well as the country’s President. President Maihripala Sirisena seemed to have thought, quite correctly, that some kind of decisive intervention was necessary to revive the capacity of the coalition regime to govern, let alone fulfil its largely forgotten mandate.
A change at the top?
The first move for a quick response came from President Sirisena himself. He seemed to have thought that a change in the post of the Prime Minister was the most suitable and effective first step, a kind of surgical act, for restructuring the government. That was also a course of action he had indirectly indicated during the local government election campaign. There were also unconfirmed reports that the President retracted a move to prorogue Parliament, after wiser counsel prevailed at a crucial moment. Little did President Sirisena seem to realize that there were constitutional as well as political constraints to such a drastic and unilateral course of action.
Thus, President Sirisena had to manage an unusual dilemma. He had committed himself to a radical sort of restructuring of the government after the local government election. That was a key promise he made during the local government election campaign. But, when the process started rolling, what became dramatically clear was that reconfiguring power relations within the coalition regime was easier said than done. Amidst much confusion, three things contributed to a state of haziness and disquiet in the political scene. The first was that there was no clarity about the constitutional possibilities according to which the President could have unilaterally carried out a major re-structuring of the government. The second was the doubt whether the President had adequate political strength and an electoral power base to effectively tilt the balance of power within the coalition away from the UNP. The third was the concern whether the President could politically manage such governmental restructuring within the rules of the game that govern coalition politics.
At the end, and after a series of informal mediation, a potentially explosive crisis was averted. Yet, a serious problem remains unaddressed. The two main partners of the present coalition government do not seem to have found a framework of accommodation and reconciliation or a will to reinvent their coalition in any meaningful manner.
All signs indicate that President Sirisena and Prime Minister Wickremesinghe will go their own ways, pursuing their own agendas, goals, and even new allies. The reason is quite obvious. They are locked in a struggle for restructuring the balance of power between the two centres of power within the ruling coalition. In simple terms, it is a power struggle that had remained dormant for some time, and come to the surface sometime late last year. It has now erupted in full force.
The presence of two centres of power within the coalition government and its contribution to the present state of affairs warrants a little elaboration.
The 19th Amendment actually formalized what had existed de facto since the conclusion of the Presidential election of January 2015. The immediate aftermath of the election saw the emergence of two centres of power within the new coalition government around two individuals, President Sirisena and Prime Minister Wickremesinghe. The conceptual foundation of the 19th Amendment is a constitutional diarchy, although the framers of the Amendment have not so far used that terminology. It is actually a dual diarchy consisting of the Executive and the Legislature on one hand, and the President and the Prime Minister on the other. The idea of two centers of power – a bi-centric constitutional scheme — was a response to the executive-led mono-centric framework of government created by the 1978 Constitution and subsequently enhanced by the 18th Amendment.
For two years, it appeared that the bi-centric framework of government seemed to work reasonably well. There were positive initial indications that the executive and legislative branches of the government were cooperating in advancing the government mandate of January 2015. At the same time, there were also indications that fissures were slowly developing, raising doubts about the political unity of the two coalition partners. These fissures were precipitated by the contradictions evolved within the so-called unity government that was established under the 19th Amendment. The unity government brought two traditional political ‘enemies’–the UNP and the SLFP- into a formal coalition, one led by the President and other by the Prime Minister.
This ‘unity government’ was a coalition of the strangest kind. It brought together two sworn political enemies –the UNP and the SLFP – who had just fought the presidential election against each other. Yet, the coalition government initially did some magic. The passing of the 19th Amendment, with so many compromises and deletions to its initial draft, was no mean achievement. Both, President Sirisena and Prime Minister Wickremesinghe demonstrated that they could work together, make compromises and advance their reform mandate overcoming challenges that initially appeared formidable. However, when we now review the events of the last three years with the benefit of retrospective hindsight, we can see a cardinal failure on the part of both these leaders: their inability to sustain, nourish and protect the coalition within as well as outside the government.
That is a theme that requires a separate essay.
To return to what has been happening during the past week, the Cabinet reshuffle gave us some clues to what we are likely to be witnessing in the coming weeks and months.
The Cabinet re-shuffle can be seen as a tactical victory to the Prime Minister in his competitive engagement with the President. Contrary to the signals coming from the President and his SLFP colleagues, there was no significant change in the UNP’s Cabinet team. Through that nominal reshuffle, the Prime Minister also communicated the message that his response to the local government election outcome was very different from that of the President. He also made a very significant political point: the SLFP partners cannot alter the coalition government’s existing balance of power at will.
So, the fault lines of the coalition government continue to remain wide open. Estranged from each other, the two main partners of the coalition seem to be pursuing unilateral political agendas. The fact that provincial council, presidential and parliamentary elections are lined up in succession makes it easier for them to further drift apart. There is absolutely no way for them to return to the reform agenda of 2015 as a team. The idealism and romance of January 2015 is irretrievably lost. Stark political realities might also force the two parties to seek new allies, on the principle that the adversary of my adversary should be my friend.
This is where some sense of prudence has to be introduced to the thinking and action of both leaders of the government. They have to acknowledge a number of unpleasant truths. For example, (a) their actions have gravely harmed the coalition they are disunitedly leading; (b) their tactical alliances with forces opposed to the coalition’s mandate have led to a paralysis of major components of the government’s reform project; (c) both have suffered defeats at the local government election by not doing certain things on the fear that doing those things would cause electoral defeats, and (d) worse still, their shared failure is likely to pave the way for an unrepentant authoritarian political formation to return to power with popular backing.
While promoting reconciliation in the country, they should also seek reconciliation among themselves. Instead of paying lip service to the Lichchavi tradition of consensus governance by discussion, they should immediately work out a framework of consultative governance for the coalition they are leading not-so jointly. They should also learn how a coalition government of unlikely partners should survive another two years with some meaningful political and policy shifts. And finally, they should be aware of the enormous political risks to which they are pushing the country when they seek out new allies in their competitive bid to outmanoeuvre each other.