Towards cohesive national governance | Sunday Observer

Towards cohesive national governance

The faces may be those of veteran politicians, familiar leaders, but, the political combination is new. The country’s two chief political actors, the President and the Prime Minister, are, today, in a new political realignment, and their respective offices of state are newly re-defined in their constitutional powers and roles.

Previously, under the Second Republican Constitution of 1978, the President was all-powerful and, its office long-maligned, for the autocratic rule it had engendered. Conversely, the 1978 Constitution had rendered the Prime Minister a mere parliamentary figurehead, unable to counter the wholly centralised power of the presidency.

President Maithripala Sirisena took office in 2015 as a strident critic of the previous regime, having defeated Mahinda Rajapaksa, incumbent President, with the goal of fixing the frailties of the executive presidential system. The following three years brought about a substantial reform of the system of governance, with state power better shared between Executive President and, the Prime Minister as head of the parliamentary governing party.

But the political alliance that undertook the constitutional reform was an alliance of the country’s principal and, traditionally rival, political forces and, that combination clearly lacked the cohesion to manage the new system adequately to take the country forward.

The joined forces of the Blues and the Greens were unable to build on that foundation of state reform to implement the other crucial aspects of the 2015 mandate, namely, fixing the accumulated inefficiencies and corruption of the 1978 presidential system and, steering the nation and the economy towards post-war prosperity.

Now, three years later, frustrated by the failures of his own ‘Good Governance’ coalition regime, President Sirisena has teamed up with old rival, former President Mahinda Rajapaksa in a joint initiative to set the re-formed ship of state on a new course that might best use the new system.

All nations and communities, big or small, democratic or not, have their crises in governance and political management. The modern Sri Lankan republic has had its share of shocks to the system and the system has withstood the vicissitudes of post-colonial political life, enabling the country to march forward undeterred.

Successive national leaderships have dealt with an attempted coup in 1962, repeated ethnic pogroms, rural insurgencies, an ethnic secessionist war, disease epidemics, floods and other storm disasters and, a devastating tsunami. When the performance of governance did not satisfy the citizen, voters have freely chosen and changed their governments, swinging from one major political party to the other. This ‘dual party’ system helped Sri Lanka join India as the two stable Westminster-style liberal democracies of South Asia. That Westminster system was boldly transformed in 1978 but, while the Second Republic may have seen some rapid economic progress, that was soon marred and slowed by the vagaries of the autocratic dimension of the 1978 Constitution.

While successive regimes have promised to either abolish the executive presidency or reform it, it was the last government that actually succeeded in changing the system.

The Good Governance regime, however, could not take things beyond that constitutional reform. Beset by the inevitable inter-party rivalry between the UNP and SLFP, as well as weaknesses arising from divisions within both parties, the Sirisena-Wickremesinghe coalition had clearly reached the end of its tether. Controversial though his recent actions might be in engineering the change of government, President Sirisena’s efforts must be seen as an initiative to end that impasse in national governance.

The new regime will have a better shot at steering the country because of its better political cohesion. Rather than the tenuous alliance between two historically rival political forces, we now have a single political formation, namely, the re-unified Sri Lanka Freedom Party, a repaired United People’s Freedom Alliance, along with the Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna, sharing power in the Presidency and the Government.

That such cohesive governmental formation may be a harbinger of better political management seems to be the anticipation of the country’s lead economic actor, the business community. The stock market rebounded last week, in anticipation of a firmer policy direction and reflecting investor confidence.

Meanwhile, the new government has moved quickly to ease consumer prices burdens with sweeping price reductions for a range of essential consumer food items, utilities, services and fuel. Agricultural fertiliser prices have also been reduced while income tax and Value Added Tax applicable to sensitive sectors are also being reduced to incentivise small business. The exchange value of the rupee has also inched upwards.

But the political controversy over the manner in which the regime changed needs to be settled quickly and definitively. It is up to the President and the new Prime Minister to ensure that the seeming political cohesiveness of the new regime is translated into effective governance. The country needs wiser counsel to prevail all round, among all political forces, in order that the new political re-alignment is tested in the legislature but done so in a manner that will enable more stable governance.

And Sri Lanka’s many friends in the world community are watching to see how things can be helped along without too much disruption. Together, Maithripala Sirisena and Mahinda Rajapaksa must now show the world that their revived political collaboration is one that will benefit from past lessons learned and a joint vision that sincerely echoes the citizens’ expectations and hopes.