Editorial | Sunday Observer


Rebuilding governmental confidence

After nearly six weeks of search for a new government following the collapse of the National Unity regime, the country can now look towards some political certainty. Last week’s court rulings cleared the way for a new political scenario and Sri Lankans will hope for a smooth transition to the new government.

The country’s judiciary showed the way with rulings indicating the governmental options available to President Maithripala Sirisena who has had to navigate the nation through weeks of political confusion and uncertainty.

Citizens aware of the stresses and strains of managing a multi-party governing coalition no doubt sympathised with the President as he struggled to ensure a semblance of stability amid the furious reactions to the sudden collapse of a regime. In a Parliament splintered in to numerous political parties and factions of parties, finding a viable alternative to the previous coalition regime is not easy.

Given the suddenness of the failure of the governing coalition, the President had to make quick decisions about political management. Since the immediate response to a major crisis between coalition partners is necessarily to seek alternative partners, the President had the next best thing: identify the second best partner option.

After all, it is the vote in the legislature that counts. To function, any government needs a viable majority in the legislature. For the President, then, it was a task to find a personality with the greatest potential to win parliamentary votes.

It was, no doubt, ironic that the President had to settle for someone against whom he contested in the last presidential polls but who, due to his continued political stature (whatever the allegations against him), had the next best potential to garner a viable parliamentary majority. Politics does make strange bedfellows.

But fate remained obstinate. In the intervening weeks, former President Rajapaksa simply could not muster the required parliamentary voting strength. Faced with this political blank wall but determined to provide his fellow citizens with the most democratic option, President Sirisena then attempted to dissolve Parliament for the purpose of holding a snap general election.

But despite snap elections being a standard constitutional option throughout most democracies in the world, the new constitutional configuration had closed off that option in this country. The Supreme Court categorically pointed this out last week in a landmark ruling.

Former President Mahinda Rajapaksa did not hesitate to gracefully resign from the office of Prime Minister without delay to leave space for the President to exercise his judgment for the greater good of the country.

President Sirisena, too, has not hesitated in making the next best political choice – despite his own reservations about ideological compatibility.

Originally, the National Unity Government was more than simply a multi-party coalition in government. Given the crisis of state and economy at that time, the regime that came to power in 2015 was actually a coalition led by the two main traditionally rival parties that deployed the combined powers of the presidency and the governing parliamentary group. It was a classic ‘contingency’ political initiative responding to a national crisis.

It was this combined regime that, after striving for consensual governance over the past three years, finally ran out of steam resulting in the withdrawal of the SLFP and UPFA from the National Unity Government. Since then, President Sirisena has sought to impress on the nation the ideological and policy gulf between his SLFP and the UNP – this being the reason for ending the coalition regime.

But serving the nation is paramount, even if it has to be with the deployment of a previously failed partnership. The President has shown his readiness to transcend ideology for this purpose.

So the nation can now enter 2019 with a sense of relief that, once again, there is certainty in our immediate political future. The re-entry of the United National Party and its UNF allies into government heralds a new phase of governance in which much needs to be negotiated anew between the incoming Prime Minister and UNP-UNF government on the one side and, on the other, the President with his commitment to his own ideals and vision for the country.

It is a negotiated regime that all citizens will wish to see succeed and bear fruit for all. The brief period of uncertainty did cause economic damage to the country in terms of undermined investor confidence and lowered credit ratings. The briefly uncertain interregnum, however, softly managed by President Sirisena along with the rival parties refraining from taking parliamentary differences on to the streets, did not do any other harm – except to test the patience of the citizenry. The UNP and its allies collaborated in this careful management of the crisis.

Nations, however, learn from experience and such episodes of parliamentary tussles and give-and-take, while dramatic on the one hand, also educates us about the twists and turns of democratic contestation. More mature nations too, have experienced similar sudden shifts of governance – sometimes changing several governments over a single year.

The nation now looks for similar maturity from all our politicians both within and without Parliament. Ultimately, in civilised society, leadership is a collective endeavour and not some ‘one-man show’.