By Veeragathy Thanabalasingham:
The government will complete three years in office today (17), marking a milestone of sorts when the two traditionally rival political parties, the United National Party (UNP) and Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP), set aside their differences and came together to form the National Unity Government. There was plenty of goodwill on this day three years ago, with many thinking of it as a historical opportunity to work together in a politically amicable climate towards finding meaningful solutions to the problems faced by the people and the country, especially the long drawn national question.
Today, exactly three years on, that goodwill has been smashed to smithereens and all sections of the Sri Lankan population are deeply disheartened by the government, and the inability of the elected members of the two parties to put their differences aside and work towards the common good of the country, nor address any of the serious problems faced by the people. Instead, what the people have been subjected to is juvenile handling of serious issues which have served to further amplify people’s hardships.
Lest one forget, President Maithripala Sirisena and Prime Minister Wickremesinghe came to power promising they would create a new political culture that would transcend party politics, only to immerse themselves in the very same politics, the main cause of the failure of the Sri Lankan polity to make any progress, especially politically. The juvenile manner in which the two leaders have been undermining each other politically ignoring the fact they are the leaders of the same government, would be high comedy if not for how it has been destroying the country.
Early on, before things disintegrated beyond repair, it seemed the President and the Prime Minister were working with a mutual understanding in handling the main issues, even when the relationship between the politicians belonging to the two respective parties appeared to be at odds. The two leaders managed to hide their differences and appeared to enjoy a semblance of a working relationship. Not anymore though, for the subtle disagreement has now manifested into open warfare with President Sirisena rejecting many proposals and developmental projects initiated by the UNP component of the government.
In the slow motion disintegration of the unity government, a factor emerging as intriguing is the Prime Minister’s statesmanship like behaviour in the face of President Sirisena’s open belligerence. While the he been criticizing his partners in governance, the former has been silent, avoiding airing the differences in open or even being critical of the SLFPers in public.
In contract, not a single week passes without ministers and members of parliament of both parties holding press conferences to vehemently criticize one another on issues of governance and politics. This writer had, in an earlier column pointed out that it was beginning to appear as though politicians of both parties were trying a bizarre experiment on how best to put party politics in the forefront, while being partners of a government. Whether it is economic development plans, constitutional reforms, reconciliation process or any other policy initiative, both parties have demonstrated almost diametrically opposed view points in their approach
The often hostile, often aggressive posture by President Sirisena towards UNP’s initiatives can be attributed to the fact that even though he is the executive president of the country, politically he appears to be a weak leader. Though he was able to secure the leadership of the SLFP immediately after winning the 2015 presidential election and assuming office as the executive president, he has not been able to bring the party under his full command. His attempts to keep his flock with him, even by using his presidential powers have failed miserably.
More than half the MPs belonging to the SLFP led United People’s Freedom Alliance (UPFA) are functioning as members of the ‘Joint Opposition led by former president Mahinda Rajapaksa, and the remaining UPFA MPs are in the National Unity Government. Meanwhile 16 MPs of the Sirisena faction, most of who were holding ministerial positions for more than two and a half years, left the government a few months ago and have become supporters of the former president. In this backdrop, it is anybody’s guess how many of the SLFP ministers and MPs of the President’s faction, who are still in the government, will continue to be loyal to him when the term ends.
If a national election is announced now, there is no doubt almost all the SLFP members who are with the President will switch their allegiance to the Rajapaksas (who now are part of the popular Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna) to ensure a political future for them.
In political terms, the SLFP component of the government is so weak that they are being compelled to take positions regarding all crucial issues in consonant with the thinking of the Joint Opposition. It can be easily said that the inability of President Sirisena to command his party with full authority is one of the major reasons for the multitude of problems the government is facing today, particularly in running an effective state administration. A case in point is the chaos in almost all the sectors of the government service, which have been staging strikes and street protests on a regular basis.
On the other hand, Prime Minister Wickremesinghe who at one point thought a divided SLFP would be highly advantageous to him and the UNP in future elections, is probably re-thinking that belief now, as the outcome of the local government elections early this year proved. The unexpected victory of the new political party of the Rajapaksas sent shock waves through the Sri Lankan polity.
The dismal performance of the UNP and the SLFP at the local government elections could be attributed to the tussle between the coalition partners and the failure to deliver on the promises made during the 2015 general elections. By amplifying their differences and playing it out on the public arena, the government leaders unwittingly pushed themselves into an unenviable corner, making it impossible to secure the people’s endorsement for government activities as a united force.
Instead of accepting their failures the leaders of the two parties gave accusatory excuses for the poll disaster, with Sirisena at one point laying the blame on Wickremesinghe’s policies and actions and unsuccessfully trying to have him removed him from the premiership. At the other end of the failure spectrum, Wickremesinghe’s hopes of exploiting the split in the SLFP to his advantage also proved futile, as the split only enables the SLFP emerge as the bigger political force in the country, pushing Sirisena’s SLFP to a position of a distant third competing for a position only with the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP).
The Rajapaksas are no longer interested in recapturing the leadership of the SLFP because they believe their new party has successfully replaced their former party as one of the main political force s in the country. The disarray in the government and the outcome of the local polls has made the Rajapaksas confident of handsomely winning any election in the future.
The Rajapaksas may appear over confident, but the UNP and SLFPare reluctant to face elections, leading the Rajapaksa camp ridiculing the coalition partners as suffering from election phobia. The government may well be running scared, for not only did it postpone the local polls by more than two and a half years, it is now coming out with numerous excuses, including the delimitation process, to delay the provincial councils elections.
With the presidential elections due before the end of next year, the Rajapaksas and their allies are intensifying the campaigns to create a momentum against the government while at the same time preparing themselves to face the election. The coalition partners on the other hand appear to be utterly confused about any future political strategies. In this background, is it any wonder that no one is betting for the unity government partners staying united for the full term?
(Veeragathy Thanabalasingham is the Consultant Editor of Express Newspapers Ltd)