In a self-destructive mission, the ruling coalition leadership(s) is continually proving that there are two governments in Sri Lanka, not just one. Under the watch of the Constitution, the Supreme Court and the media – all arbiters of democracy, apart from the people, who are the final authority – President Maithiripala Sirisena and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe are running parallel administrations, coalescing on big cover-ups, colluding in public on smaller ones, all the time sending out more than clear signals that that the twain shall not meet.
That it was at best a ‘marriage of inconvenience’ was known to those who knew Sri Lanka, almost from the start. When the coalition became acceptable to the voter, and Sirisena got elected on the strength of votes from everyone else other than his own self, it became an academic exercise at observation, as to when and how it would crumble – not if it would at all crumble under its own weight of contradictions galore since conception, then inception.
The ideological differences between Sirisena’s SLFP and Ranil’s UNP were known from the start, so were their political approaches to issues and concerns, in every which way. The respective party’s administrative acumen and angularities too had been known almost since the mid-Fifties. Where there were bridgeable gaps, they were accentuated and widened, not sought to be filled in.
What the proponents of the coalition did not provide for was that the two leaders were/are cut out of the same cloth, and in the wrong department. Both are secretive, suspicious of each other, convincing the rest of the world that their silence is their strength. From day one, they suspected each other, owing not only to the differentiated political culture, but more to their common personality and character.
With the result, the two leaders not only suspected each other, but also took great pains and efforts to successfully sow the seeds of suspicion in the minds of the other. The people’s mandate did not weigh this characteristic of the leaders they voted for. The Constitution does not provide for it, and the Judiciary cannot help resolve their day-to-day bickering.
Such is the nature of the institutions, and such is the character of the personalities concerned that the nation’s media can only stoke the fire, not put help put off the same. To all this, you add the hourly doses of public targeting of each of them by the other’s camp, and the picture is now complete.
Too early or too late?
The question arises if the worsening management of the political crisis by the two leaders has come too early in the five-year term of the Government, or has it come too late? In a way, it is too early for Elections-2019/20, but it may also be too late after Elections-2015, considering that the bickering has stalled all administration at all levels and in all sectors and departments.
From education to employment-creation, there does not seem to be even on sector where the ill-effects of this administrative impasse, bordering on criminal neglect, have not left its mark. If the law and order situation, for instance, has not suffered too much, or no one is talking about a possible return of a JVP-like Left militancy in the Sinhala South, or an LTTE revival in the Tamil North, it owes to the armed forces on the ground, and the political leadership that they had displaced in Elections-2015.
It is a dangerous proposition, but then that is the kind of inhibitive thought-process that could inhabit sections of the nation’s population before long. The drift needs to be arrested, and what better way than for the two leaders to part company and honourably so, here and now – and go back to the voter for a clearer and independent mandate, be it for either of them, or even both of them, on a re-worked post-poll consensus agenda with checks and balances. Or, it could also go a third, Mahinda Rajapaksa way.
The nation, in a way, should thank the dual leadership for delaying the local government elections. That was the common-point of contact and acceptance for them to stay, and stay together. They could also condemn the duo for delaying the local government polls, as the current impasse at least could have ended early on, and the nation might have been seized of other, more pertinent issues of daily living and hourly administration.
After 19-A, the duo co-piloted and grudgingly so, the President can dismiss the elected Government without explanation only six months before the expiry of the incumbent Parliament’s term. This Parliament is not due for normal re-election before mid-August 2020, and the six-month count-down does not begin before mid-March.
But President Sirisena’s five-year term (as reiterated by the Supreme Court and at his own instance now) ends in early January 2020, and fresh elections could be expected by end-2019. A six-year term, over which Sirisena sought Supreme Court’s ‘determination’ under the Constitution, would have meant that he would have been the master of determining the life and times of this Parliament, hence the Ranil-led Government but not anymore (and, thankfully so!).
If now after the Supreme Court determination, Sirisena feels that he has been ‘politically short-changed’ over 19-A, it may be too late for him to try and ‘rectify’ the wrong. On the electoral front, where he won, he was faced with a more open and at times abrasive Rajapaksa. On the immediate, post-poll politico-administrative front, he was/is tackling Ranil W, who is habitually more slippery than he ever has been.
Lame-duck all the way
Yet, whatever the way the results of the nation-wide local government polls go, it could mean the beginning of the formal end of this coalition, as governance stopped long ago – or, never really took off. It was always a lame-duck government, with the Sirisena-SLFP faction (yes, it is still a faction, whatever it might be deemed otherwise), always ready to pull the carpet from under the Ranil-UNP’s feet.
It was/is an uneven game, as for replacing the President on the reverse, the UNP would have to work overtime to have him impeached. To start with, it would be politically suicidal for the UNP, after all their tall talk against the Rajapaksa regime getting then Chief Justice Shirani Bandaranayake impeached. More importantly, they would be handing over decision-making to the Rajapaksas, the alternative being to begin horse-trading from the Sirisena-SLFP from the crack of dawn the day after the LG poll results are out, whatever the results.
Anyway, the UNP does not have enough loads on Sirisena that could convince the nation that he should go, whatever the political niceties and constitutional proprieties. Or, such a reason should be so compelling that the President would be left with no choice but to quit on his own volition. As for as the eye could see, there is no justification that could do the works, especially after the Central Bank scam, probe and the present report, where the UNP is in the front rows of the dock, with Sirisena hiding his head from behind the crowd.
The alternative for the two and to stay together would be to target the Rajapaksas every now and again, but that target-practice of theirs has taken them nowhere, so is the case with the nation. Today, they can still manage to stall the return of the Rajapaksas to politics, through legal means that may not be as popular as in the past, but that does not guarantee anything for them – more certainly, the eternal continuance of this ‘dual irresponsibility’!
(The writer is Director, Chennai Chapter of the Observer Research Foundation, the multi-disciplinary Indian public-policy think-tank, headquartered in New Delhi. Email: email@example.com)