The essence of cohabitation | Sunday Observer

The essence of cohabitation

22 May, 2022

Cohabitation can mean many things but in politics it essentially means the coming together of leaders and members of two or more political parties in a governing structure.

Cohabitation is common in countries such as France but Sri Lanka got its first taste of this system in 2001, when the United National Party led by Ranil Wickremesinghe won the General Election while Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga was still President.

The next such instance is from 2015 when Maithripala Sirisena won the Presidency and appointed Ranil Wickremesinghe as Prime Minister. Thus the Government was known as the Yahapalanaya and its Cabinet comprised members from both the UNP and the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) led United People’s Freedom Alliance (UPFA).

In both these instances, the cohabitation Governments could not quite go the full distance as squabbles between the President and the Prime Minister came to the fore, leading to political instability, which in turn paved the way for somewhat premature elections.

The present cohabitation Government is not the result of an election or a prior arrangement, but one forced by unique circumstances including an unprecedented economic crisis.

President Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s first initiative in this regard was convening an All-Party Conference (APC), which was however boycotted by both the main Opposition Samagi Jana Balavegaya (SJB) and the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP). The UNP’s sole representative in Parliament, its leader Ranil Wickremesinghe participated and made many constructive suggestions. Later, the President mooted the idea of forming an All-Party Government, which too was rejected by the combined Opposition.

Finally, with the belated resignation of former Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa under less than ideal circumstances, the President made another appeal to Opposition Leader Sajith Premadasa to take up the Premiership and form a Government. He however vacillated.

Given the urgency of the situation, the President turned to Wickremesinghe, who rose to the occasion and accepted the challenge of Premiership. There is a general consensus in political circles as well as in society that he is the best man for the job, given the dire state of the country’s economy.

Incidentally, Premier Wickremesinghe has now featured in all three cohabitation Governments in that position. This too could be a world record. And it is also very likely that this cohabitation Government will be an interim arrangement until a general election can be held six months or one year hence, perhaps after reintroducing the 19thAmendment as the 21st Amendment and abolishing the Executive presidency in the meantime.

But until a new Government can be formed via an election, the country badly needs political and economic stability. No country will come forward to assist us financially if the political and social situation is volatile.

This is why Friday’s appointment of nine more Cabinet Ministers is very significant as it sends a signal about political stability to our partners in the international community.

It is also gratifying to note that most of the important subjects have been covered by now, which is important given the present dire straits. In a break from traditional adversarial politics, several senior stalwarts of both the SLFP and the SJB have accepted ministerial portfolios, defying the stance of their respective party leaders.

Among them are some of the harshest critics of both President Gotabaya Rajapaksa and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe.

But having seen the indecisiveness of their party leaderships, they had decided to join the President and the Prime Minister and offer their services for the sake of the Nation. This is a correct action and attitude at this crucial juncture, because collective action is needed to save the Nation.

And this time, there is a major difference. Prime Minister Wickremesinghe has categorically stated all Cabinet Ministers as well as himself will not be getting any additional salaries and perks.

This is a welcome move, because such perks and privileges have become a point of contention for public protests. Besides, it would be inappropriate and unfair for our people’s representatives to draw additional perks at a time when the people are suffering greatly due to the runaway cost of living, chronic shortages of essential goods and many other issues.

This is exactly why the public reacted angrily to the move by the Government to provide fuel to all MPs from the Narahenpita Police Garage sans any queue and probably at subsidised rates, though that was later denied by the Ceylon Petroleum Corporation (CPC) unions.

Absolutely no extra privileges should be granted to MPs and Ministers. All their extra perks including the infamous duty free vehicle permit and the pension should be abolished through the proposed new Constitution.

Indeed, just like all others, they should wait in line at filling stations to get their fuel requirements. Some MPs have also proposed that subsidised meals should not be provided for MPs. This too is a good proposal.

It was rather unfortunate that during the Parliamentary sessions last week, many MPs spoke only about their woes. Only a few focused on the acute problems of the people. It is only fair that the MPs whose houses were destroyed by mobs in the May 9 mayhem are adequately compensated after a damage assessment, but this should not be the overriding priority at this stage.

Priority has to be given to resolving the problems faced by the people first. Foreign exchange has to be secured and shortages of fuel and other essentials will have to be addressed in the short term.

Resurrecting the moribund economy should be the next aim. The multi-party Government and Cabinet now in power deserves the cooperation of all in achieving these objectives expeditiously.